Multiple Russian military contractors died in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week signalling the beginning of a potentially dangerous phase in the Middle East.
The incident 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 al-Assad. Neither Washington nor Moscow officially confirmed the number of deaths.
The United States described the Feb. 7 airstrike southeast of the city of Deir ez-Zor as a counterattack after an unprovoked assault by pro-government forces on a base where U.S. troops were operating in support of local partner units.
One U.S. official said the American-led coalition was in regular contact with Russian counterparts “before, during and after” the attack and that no regular Russian service members were believed to have been killed.
But beyond Russia’s official military engagement in Syria backing the regime, an unknown number of Russian mercenaries are fighting as part of Assad’s army.
Bloomberg News quoted Russian sources as saying as many as 200 Russian nationals could have been killed in the strike last week around the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor region between forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and a Kurdish-led opposition force supported by US advisers.
But in recent days, rumours have swirled online in Russia that large numbers of those military contractors had perished under American fire.
The contractors have been active in Syria since the Kremlin launched its intervention in September 2015, according to Russian news reports.
All US Central Command have confirmed is that US forces came under fire from a tank, and that they responded with three hours of intense strikes from drones and B-52 bombers.