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US forces may have killed Russian attackers in Syria — but reports remain unclear

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks to a trilateral meeting on Syria on Nov. 22, 2017, in Sochi. A U.S. strike earlier this month in Syria reportedly killed an unknown number of Russian private contractors, according to Russian media. But neither Russian nor U.S. officials have said much about the incident. (Mikhail Klimetyev/AFP/Getty Images)

A U.S. strike in Syria reportedly killed an unknown number of Russian private contractors, according to Russian media.

Neither Russian nor U.S. officials have said much about the incident, which could complicate or intensify strained relations between the two nations, if indeed Russian forces were killed while attempting a direct attack on U.S. forces, ABC News reported.

What did the U.S. military say about the incident?

According to the U.S. military, about 300 attackers launched a coordinated assault on U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces on Feb. 7.

In response, the U.S. hit the Syrian government-backed troops with an air and artillery barrage that killed about 100 attackers.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said he didn’t believe Russia had any control over the attackers and also the U.S. could not determine the nationalities of the group.

How many Russians were killed?

It’s unclear if Russians were killed in the strike, or how many:

  • The Russian Defense Ministry said 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded.
  • Unconfirmed claims cited in Russian media report 200 casualties, a majority of which are Russian.
  • The Tass news agency reported two Russian citizens as having been killed in Syria, and the Interfax news agency reported two other Russians killed in combat.

What are the other issues?

  • Russia and the United States maintain communication to ensure their planes and soldiers do not come into direct conflict with one another. These reports could indicate that Russian troops directly attacked U.S. forces and that U.S. forces killed Russians on the battlefield, which could escalate into more direct conflict in the region.
  • Grigory Yavlinsky, who is running against Russian President Vladimir Putin in this year’s presidential election, is calling for accountability for the deaths of Russian citizens. “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,” Yavlinsky said, according to ABC News.
  • The Russian Defense Ministry has accused the U.S. of trying to secure Syrian assets under the guise of fighting against the Islamic State.
  • Russian law forbids Russians from hiring or working as mercenaries. Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Defense Ministry would comment on reports that Russians were serving as private contractors in Syria.
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