MOSCOW (AP) — At least several 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 if officially confirmed.
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 during a conference call with reporters if Putin raised the episode during Monday's phone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump, Peskov said the situation in Syria wasn't discussed during the call.
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 on Wednesday.
The U.S. military said last week it launched air and artillery strikes 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.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded in the U.S. strike and insisted that its troops weren't involved in Wednesday's incident. It said that 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.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday dismissed any suggestion that Russia had any control over the attacking force, whose nationalities, motives and makeup he could not identify.
The U.S. strike came as U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces were vying for control of the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province with Russian-backed Syrian troops that are reinforced by Iranian-supported militias.
The Russian and the U.S. militaries have maintained regular communications to avoid collisions on the chaotic Syrian battlefield. If the death of Russian private contractors is confirmed, it could further strain ties between the two countries that 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.
Without mentioning the U.S. strike, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted Tuesday that "Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps."
"Those steps look increasingly as 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 Wednesday.
The Interfax news agency said that the Cossack group in the westernmost Kalningrad region said a member named Vladimir Loginov was killed in combat in the province of Deir el-Zour. It also quoted Alexander Averin, 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.
Liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who is running for president in Russia's March 18 presidential election, urged Putin to come into the open regarding the deaths of Russians in Syria, saying that official silence on the subject was "unacceptable."
"If many Russian citizens were killed, officials, including the commander-in-chief, must tell the nation about it and determine who is responsible for that," he said.
Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad's government seize large chunks of territory and turn the tide of war into its favor.
Russian media have reported that in addition to Russian servicemen deployed to Syria, thousands of Russians also fought there as private contractors, allowing the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its campaign in Syria low and avoid the negative public response.
The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry refused to comment on media reports on Russian private contractors in Syria.