Published: Wed, February 14, 2018
Global News | By Stacy Ballard

U.S. drone destroys Russian tank in eastern Syria's Deir el-Zor

U.S. drone destroys Russian tank in eastern Syria's Deir el-Zor

The offensive began late February 7, when pro-Assad forces opened fire on the United States installation and advanced in a "battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars", USA military spokesman Colonel Thomas F. Veale said.

The Russian Defense Ministry charged that the incident reflected a USA push to grab Syria's economic assets under the cover of fighting the Islamic State group.

At least two Russian fighters were killed in U.S. air strikes in north-eastern Syria last week, their associates have told the BBC.

One of the dead was 51-year-old Vladimir Loginov. Alexander Averin, a spokesman for the nationalist party he was linked to, told Reuters Ananiev had been killed in shelling in the same fighting on Feb 7.

The death toll from the skirmish, already about five times more than Russia's official losses in Syria, is still rising, according to one mercenary commander who said by phone that dozens of his wounded men are still being treated at military hospitals in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

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The US military said it destroyed the tank after it moved within firing range of the US-backed forces while being supported by artillery fire. The attack was reportedly called for by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia and lasted for about four hours.

They also come weeks ahead of Russia's March 18 presidential election.

The US and Russian militaries have de-confliction channels to prevent accidental clashes in Syria and alert each other to movements.

Bloomberg, however, reported that three Russian sources told them the attack was conducted by Russian mercenaries, and that as many as 200 Russian "contract soldiers" died in the attack.

In the past several years, the United States has supported some opposition groups in Syria which it called "moderates" against the Syrian government and also led an worldwide coalition to battle the IS group.

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Syrian state media have reported that the strikes left dozens killed, accusing the U.S. of a "brutal massacre". Putin is widely expected to secure a fourth term in the controlled political environment, but analysts say he wants high turnout and a convincing victory to bolster his mandate as he heads into what may his last term.

Two Trump administration officials said the U.S used a military hotline to communicate with the Russian side to warn that it was about to launch air strikes.

It remains unknown who was paying the Russian fighters, whether it was Russia itself, Syria, or Iran.

"If Russians are among those who were killed, this would mark the first time a United States air strike has killed Russians in Syria", CBS News' David Martin reported. "The Russians have always responded to our calls, we always answer". I can't give you anything on that.

The US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down the incident, saying: "This could just be a local couple of guys doing something". Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence firm, recently reported that Wagner mercenaries had served in Ukraine, Syria, and parts of Africa.

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The rift deepened after Turkey launched an operation targeting the YPG in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria on January 20, despite calls by the USA for restraint. He noted that the Russian military could have been unaware of the contractors' involvement in the attacking force because coordination between them has been very poor.

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