MOSCOW — A group of Russian military contractors died in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week, people who knew two of those killed said Tuesday, signaling the beginning of a potentially dangerous phase in the crowded theater of war 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 deaths.
And the Kremlin, rather than using the incident to fan anti-American feelings, sought to play it down.
The United States described the Feb. 7 airstrike southeast of the city of Deir al-Zour 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 that 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.
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. In recent days, rumors 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 began its intervention in September 2015, according to Russian news reports.