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Putin abandoned Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria, relatives say

The deadly clashes took place last Wednesday in the oil-rich region of Deir az-Zour. [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 February, 2018

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The death of Russian citizens in Syria last week has exposed the role of Moscow mercenaries in the multi-front conflict.
Russian mercenaries in Syria have been abandoned by the Kremlin, relatives of military contractors fighting in the war have said.

More than 300 men working for a Russian-linked private contractor were reportedly killed or injured in US air strikes in the east of Syria.

The incident has been played down by both Moscow and Washington.

The US had said the coalition acted in self-defence when an enemy unit of 300 to 500 fighters launched an attack on an established Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] position east of the Euphrates river in Deir az-Zour province

The coalition warned the Russian military and proceeded to strike the formation, killing up to 100 people. The Russian military said it had no troops in the area.

Russia on Thursday finally recognised that five Russian citizens - not officially affiliated with the Russian military - were likely killed in the strikes in eastern Syria. This was Moscow's first admission of non-military combat casualties.

"They are there illegally, the government has disowned them, even Putin says our soldiers are not there," Valentina Berdysheva, 80, told Reuters.

Her oldest son and five other men left to fight in Syria as military contractors last October, she said, with at least one of them killed and the whereabouts of her son unknown.

The group of men told friends they had found "a gig" before travelling to the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and later to Syria.

"Who will help us? They left on their own, somebody came there to collect them and took them away. Where did they go?"

Her son had previously fought in two wars in Russia's Chechnya region but struggled to find work afterwards, Berdysheva said.

Russian guns for hire

The death of Russian citizens in Syria has exposed the role of Russian mercenaries in the multi-front conflict.

Russia can legally prosecute mercenaries under an existing law which has been applied against several citizens fighting in Ukraine and Syria in recent years.

In 2014, two Russian men, Vadim Gusev and Yevgeny Sidorov, were sentenced to three years in prison after they recruited over 200 former military soldiers to an outfit called the Slavonic Corps for a trip to Syria's Deir az-Zour.

According to Fontanka website, which has chronicled the involvement of private military contractors in Syria, the Slavonic Corps later became the core of a new mercenary group recruited by former member Dmitry Utkin, nicknamed "Wagner".

The Wagner group has no website or social networking page, instead attracting men with military experience through word of mouth. 

Utkin and the Wagner group was blacklisted by the US Treasury in 2016 for having "recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine".

According to Fontanka, Wagner is associated with a Russian company Yevro Polis, which has signed a deal with the Syrian government. 

Under the deal, the company would capture and secure oil and gas infrastructure in Syria in exchange for a 25 percent share in future resource production.

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