Despite vehemently denying Russian personnel had even been present in the location recently struck by U.S. forces in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, reports have begun emerging that scores of wounded Russian mercenaries are now being treated at defense ministry hospitals.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), the wounded fighters were brought to military hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two sources who were in contact with the fighters have said. Allegedly, more than 200 fighters died in last week’s assault on a U.S. base in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor region, which then became a counter-assault led by U.S. airstrikes.

SMH reported:

“In what may be the deadliest clash between citizens of the former Cold War foes, the Deir Ezzor attack involved hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries, who were fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, according to the two Russians. The fighters had no air cover or mobile air defence to protect them during the fighting, they said.”

On Thursday, Russia acknowledged Russian deaths but continued to deny that this personnel had any official involvement with Russia’s own armed forces.

“We are possibly talking about the deaths of five people, supposedly citizens of the Russian Federation. Others are injured. But this all requires verification, in particular their citizenship. We are not talking about Russian soldiers,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reportedly said.

The SMH presented its own view on this conundrum:

“The incident shines a light on a little-known weapon in the Kremlin’s hybrid-war arsenal. Mercenaries, who’ve been active in eastern Ukraine and Syria, allow Russia to deny official involvement in operations when things go wrong. Fighters involved in the February 7 assault in Syria were linked to Wagner, two people familiar with the matter said, a shadowy private military contractor that has a training camp at a commando base in southern Russia.”ext-3

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