Pri­vate Rus­sian con­trac­tors killed in Amer­i­can airstrike in Syria

First pub­licly known case of such an at­tack

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page -

MOSCOW — An un­known num­ber of pri­vate Rus­sian mil­i­tary con­trac­tors were killed by a U.S. strike in Syria, Rus­sian me­dia re­ported Tues­day in a de­vel­op­ment that could fur­ther in­flame Rus­sia-U.S. ten­sions.

The in­ci­dent that spot­lighted the risk of a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion ap­pears to be the first pub­licly known case of the U.S. mil­i­tary fir­ing on and killing Rus­sians fight­ing on be­half of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Of­fi­cials in both Moscow and Wash­ing­ton re­mained coy about the deaths, which would be an em­bar­rass­ment for both coun­tries if it turns out that Rus­sian fight­ers were part of a unit that at­tacked a mil­i­tary force with Amer­i­can troops.

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, re­frained from com­ment­ing on re­ports about the in­ci­dent last week, say­ing they need to be ver­i­fied.

U.S. of­fi­cials also said the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment had lodged no com­plaint about its cit­i­zens be­ing killed.

Asked dur­ing a con­fer­ence call with re­porters if Mr. Putin raised the episode dur­ing a phone con­ver­sa­tion Mon­day with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Mr. Peskov said the sit­u­a­tion in Syria wasn’t dis­cussed dur­ing the call.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis

said Tues­day that Rus­sia has told the U.S. there were no Rus­sians in the area of the strike. Mr. Mat­tis said he saw the news re­ports about Rus­sian con­trac­tors pos­si­bly be­ing ca­su­al­ties of the bomb­ing.

He called the whole thing “per­plex­ing.”

“I don’t have any re­port­ing that some non-Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion sol­diers, but Rus­sian con­trac­tors were among the ca­su­al­ties,” Mr. Mat­tis told re­porters trav­el­ing with him in Europe. “I can’t give you any­thing on that. We have not re­ceived that word at Cen­tral Com­mand or the Pen­tagon.”

Rus­sian me­dia said the Rus­sian pri­vate con­trac­tors were part of pro-gov­ern­ment forces that ad­vanced on oil fields in the east­ern Deir el-Zour prov­ince and were tar­geted by the United States. The re­ports cited ac­tivists who con­firmed that at least four Rus­sian cit­i­zens were killed in Syria last Wed­nes­day — and per­haps dozens more, ac­cord­ing to one U.S. of­fi­cial and three Rus­sians fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

It’s not clear who was pay­ing the Rus­sian con­tin­gent, whether it was Rus­sia di­rectly, Syria, Iran or a third party.

“No one wants to start a world war over a vol­un­teer or a mer­ce­nary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Amer­i­cans,” Vi­taly Naumkin, a se­nior ad­viser to Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment on Syria, said in an in­ter­view.

Dur­ing the war in Syria, Rus­sia and the United States have main­tained a com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel to avoid col­li­sions be­tween their war­planes and sol­diers in the chaotic bat­tle­field. If Rus­sian deaths from the U.S. strike are con­firmed, it would mean the two coun­tries were on the verge of a di­rect mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion in Syria.

Wed­nes­day’s as­sault may have­been a rogue op­er­a­tion, un­der­scor­ing the com­plex­ity of a con­flict that started as a do­mes­tic crack­down only to morph into a proxy war in­volv­ing Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, state­less Kurds, and re­gional pow­ers Iran, Turkeyand now Is­rael.

The episode could fur­ther strain ties be­tween the two coun­tries, which have plum­meted to the low­est lev­els since the Cold War over the Ukrainian con­flict, the war in Syria and the al­leged Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

The U.S. mil­i­tary said last week it un­leashed air and ar­tillery bar­rage on Syr­ian gov­ern­ment-backed troops af­ter some 300 at­tack­ers launched what ap­peared to be a co­or­di­nated as­sault on Syr­ian op­po­si­tion forces ac­com­pa­nied by U.S. ad­vis­ers in the prov­ince of Deir el-Zour. It said it was in reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Rus­sian coun­ter­parts be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the at­tack, and Rus­sian of­fi­cials as­sured coali­tion of­fi­cials they would not strike coali­tion forces.

It said the U.S. strikes, which re­port­edly killed about 100 of the at­tack­ers, were in self-de­fense.

A Syr­ian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer said that dozens of its sol­diers had been killed in the fight­ing last Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, but news about Rus­sian ca­su­al­ties has drib­bled out only slowly, through Rus­sian news or­ga­ni­za­tions and so­cial me­dia.

The Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry has in­sisted that its troops weren’t in­volved in the in­ci­dent, say­ing 25 Syr­ian vol­un­teers were wounded in the U.S. strike.

It also noted pro-gov­ern­ment forces that ad­vanced to­ward the area un­der con­trol of the U.S.-sup­ported forces had failed to co­or­di­nate their ac­tion with the Rus­sian mil­i­tary in Syria.

And a U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman said that at no point was there any chance of di­rect con­flict be­tween U.S. and Rus­sian forces.

Mr. Mat­tis last week dis­missed any sug­ges­tion that Rus­sia had any con­trol over the at­tack­ing force, whose na­tion­al­i­ties, mo­tives and makeup he could not iden­tify.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.