Re­ports: U.S. forces killed Rus­sians

Of­fi­cials have not con­firmed deaths

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Burns and Vladimir Isachenkov

WASH­ING­TON » It’s a sce­nario many feared in the fog of Syria’s multi-front war: a con­fronta­tion in which U.S. forces, re­spond­ing to a provo­ca­tion, kill Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies or con­trac­tors on a crowded bat­tle­field.

Rus­sian news re­ports Tues­day de­scribed just such a sce­nario, with an un­known num­ber of Rus­sian mil­i­tary con­trac­tors killed in a fe­ro­cious U.S. coun­ter­at­tack last week, although De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and other U.S. of­fi­cials said they had no such in­for­ma­tion on ca­su­al­ties and the Krem­lin did not con­firm it. U.S. of­fi­cials also said the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment had lodged no com­plaint about Rus­sian na­tion­als hav­ing been killed.

What is not dis­puted is the fastchang­ing, of­ten con­fus­ing na­ture of a bat­tle­field in which forces of mul­ti­ple coun­tries are bump­ing up against one an­other, rais­ing the prospect of vi­o­lent col­li­sions, whether in­tended or not, that could fur­ther in­flame ten­sions be­tween Moscow and Wash­ing­ton. Rus­sian forces are sup­port­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment in its war with op­po­si­tion groups while stay­ing in daily con­tact with the U.S. to avoid deadly bat­tle­field col­li­sions. Separately, the U.S. is sup­port­ing a group of Syr­ian Kurds and Arabs, dubbed the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, fight­ing the Is­lamic State.

Also be­yond doubt is the fe­ro­cious scale of the U.S. at­tack on Feb. 7, in re­sponse to what the U.S. mil­i­tary called a bar­rage of ar­tillery and tank fire from sev­eral hun­dred “pro-regime” fight­ers in Deir el-Zour prov­ince, an area in east­ern Syria where rem­nants of the Is­lamic State have con­verged among oil fields. Lt. Gen. Jef­frey Har­ri­gian, com­man­der of U.S. air forces in the Mid­dle East, told re­porters a broad range of U.S. air power was un­leashed.

For more than three hours, Amer­i­can F-15E at­tack planes, B-52 strate­gic bombers, AC-130 gun­ships, Apache at­tack he­li­copters and Reaper drones fired on the at­tack­ing ground force, which Har­ri­gian said was ad­vanc­ing un­der cov­er­ing fire from ar­tillery, mor­tars, rock­ets and tank rounds. He said the air power stopped the at­tack­ers’ ad­vance and de­stroyed an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of ar­tillery guns and bat­tle tanks. He gave no es­ti­mate of ca­su­al­ties.

“As the hos­tile forces turned west and re­treated, we ceased fire,” Har­ri­gian, speak­ing from his head­quar­ters in Qatar, said in a video tele­con­fer­ence with re­porters at the Pen­tagon. He in­sisted the U.S. had not yet de­ter­mined the na­tion­al­i­ties of those in the at­tack­ing force.

Rus­sian me­dia said Rus­sian pri­vate con­trac­tors were part of pro-Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces that ad­vanced on oil fields in the Deir el-Zour prov­ince and were tar­geted by the United States. The re­ports cited ac­tivists who said that at least four Rus­sian cit­i­zens were killed in Syria on Feb. 7.

The Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry charged that the in­ci­dent re­flected a U.S. push to grab Syria’s eco­nomic as­sets un­der the cover of fight­ing the Is­lamic State group.

With­out men­tion­ing the U.S. strike, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said Tues­day that “Amer­i­cans have taken dan­ger­ous uni­lat­eral steps.”

“Those steps look in­creas­ingly like part of ef­forts to cre­ate a quasi-state on a large part of Syr­ian ter­ri­tory — from the east­ern bank of the Euphrates River all the way to the bor­der with Iraq,” he said.

The state Tass news agency on Tues­day cited Natalya Krylova, a mu­nic­i­pal law­maker in the town of As­bestos in the Urals, as say­ing lo­cal res­i­dents Igor Koso­turov and Stanislav Matveyev were killed in Syria on Feb. 7. The In­ter­fax news agency re­ported that a Cos­sack group in the west­ern­most Kal­ningrad re­gion said a mem­ber named Vladimir Logi­nov was killed in com­bat in the Deir el-Zour prov­ince. It also quoted Alexan­der Averin, the leader of ex­treme left­ist group An­other Rus­sia, as say­ing that one of its ac­tivists, Kir­ill Ananyev, was killed by the U.S. strike near Khusham.

Rus­sian me­dia also cited un­con­firmed claims that over­all ca­su­al­ties could have been as high as 200 and Rus­sians could have ac­counted for the bulk of them. Those claims couldn’t be ver­i­fied.

CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo was asked dur­ing a Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee hear­ing about re­ported Rus­sian ca­su­al­ties. He said that was a mat­ter for the Pen­tagon, but he added, “From an in­tel­li­gence per­spec­tive, we have seen in mul­ti­ple in­stances for­eign forces us­ing mer­ce­nar­ies in bat­tles that will be­gin to ap­proach the United States.”

Mat­tis, speak­ing to re­porters Tues­day while trav­el­ing in Europe, said he had seen news re­ports of Rus­sian con­trac­tors be­ing killed in that fight­ing, which he de­scribed last week as a sur­pris­ing as­sault in light of ob­vi­ous U.S. ad­van­tages, in­clud­ing over­whelm­ing air power. On Tues­day he said, “I don’t have any re­port­ing” about Rus­sian con­trac­tors be­ing among the ca­su­al­ties. “I can’t give you any­thing on that. We have not re­ceived that word” at key U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters, in­clud­ing the Pen­tagon.

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

Asked whether Putin had raised the episode dur­ing a phone con­ver­sa­tion with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Mon­day, Peskov said Syria wasn’t dis­cussed.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV — POOL PHOTO VIA AP

In this file photo taken on Tues­day, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, right, watches the troops march­ing as he and Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad visit the He­meimeem air base in Syria.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV — POOL PHOTO VIA AP, FILE

In this file photo taken on Tues­day, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ad­dresses the troops at the He­meimeem air base in Syria.

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