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US strikes said to kill scores of Russian fighters in Syria
14 February 2018, 06:13 | Tara Lloyd
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.
A Pentagon official said it was an MQ-9 Reaper that struck the tank with a precision-guided munition. They are believed to be dead, according to Russian officials.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian says the drone saw the tank "that took a shot at us", and that he believes the United States rules of engagement allowed for the tank to be destroyed in self-defense to protect the drone.
In footage released by the Department of Defense on Tuesday, the T-72 can be seen sitting stationary and appears to fire a round from its 125mm main gun just before being hit by the US air strike that destroyed the vehicle.
Asked at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about Russian deaths, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said, "From an intelligence perspective, we have seen in multiple instances foreign forces using mercenaries in battles that will begin to approach the United States".
Both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria.
If the US did kill Russian military contractors, it falls short of killing official Russian service members, which could escalate into a larger war.
They were deployed both to help keep the official cost down and to avoid reports of casualties, especially with a March presidential election in Russian Federation fast approaching, analysts have said. It remains unclear how many Russians were killed.
Top Photo | Russian soldiers walk outside a hospital in Deir el-Zor, Syria, Sept. 15, 2017. He warned against relying on "distorted information" in media reports, some of which cited unconfirmed claims that overall casualties could have been as high as 200 and Russians could have accounted for the bulk of them. It said their associates also confirmed that "dozens" of other Russian fighters lost their lives in the same fighting on February 7.
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Meanwhile Israeli military assets - funded by US taxpayers - are engaged in a proxy war of their own in Syria against Iran, another supporter of the Assad regime.
It said it was in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the attack, and Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not strike coalition forces.
Several Russians died in Deir Ezzor that day, according to groups representing them.
In addition, Lavrov said that the "Americans have taken risky unilateral steps".
"The Americans, in my opinion, are taking risky unilateral steps, which by the way, look more and more like a part of a plan to create a quasi-state on a large part of the Syrian territory, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates and up to the Iraqi border", Lavrov said at a press conference.
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He said: "This is a hostile force that was coming after our partners and coalition advisers so we are going to defend ourselves".
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