An official document seen by Reuters shows that at least 131 Russian citizens died in Syria in the first nine months of this year, a number that relatives, friends and local officials say included private military contractors, according to Reuters.
But Reuters has established in interviews with the families and friends of some of the deceased and officials in their hometowns that the dead included Russian private military contractors killed while fighting alongside the forces of Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The presence of the Russian contractors in Syria - and the casualties they are sustaining - is denied by Moscow, which wants to portray its military intervention in Syria as a successful peace mission with minimal losses.
The Russian defense ministry did not immediately respond to detailed questions submitted by Reuters. Requests for comment from the Russian consulate in Damascus did not elicit a response.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement provided to Reuters on Friday: “We do not have information about individual citizens who visit Syria. With that, I consider this question dealt with.”
Reuters sent questions to a group of Russian private military contractors active in Syria through a person who knows their commanders, but did not receive a response.
The official death toll of military personnel in Syria this year is 16. A casualty figure significantly higher than that could tarnish President Vladimir Putin’s record five months before a presidential election which he is expected to contest.
A Reuters count of the number of Russian private contractors known to have been killed in Syria this year, based on interviews with relatives and friends of the dead and local officials in their hometowns, stands at 26.