About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
A Russian military doctor said around 100 had been killed, and a source who knows several of the fighters said the death toll was in excess of 80 men.
The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on February 7 near the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor where, according to US officials and associates of the fighters involved, US-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Russian officials said five citizens may have been killed but they had no relation to Russia’s armed forces.
The clashes show Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said, and risks being drawn into direct confrontation with the United States in Syria.
The casualties are the highest that Russia has suffered in a single battle since fierce clashes in Ukraine in 2014 claimed more than 100 fighters’ lives. Moscow denies sending soldiers and volunteers to Ukraine and has never confirmed that figure.
The wounded, who have been medically evacuated from Syria in the past few days, have been sent to four Russian military hospitals, according to five sources familiar with the matter.
The military doctor, who works in a Moscow military hospital and was directly involved in the treatment of wounded men evacuated from Syria, said that as of Saturday evening there were more than 50 such patients in his hospital, of which around 30 percent were seriously wounded.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose information about casualties, said at least three planeloads of injured fighters were flown to Moscow between last Friday and Monday morning.
He said they were flown back on specially equipped military cargo planes, which can each accommodate two or three intensive care cases and several dozen less severely wounded patients.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. She said reports of tens or hundreds of Russian casualties were disinformation inspired by Russia’s opponents.
The Russian defense ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about casualties in Syria. A Kremlin spokesman, asked about Russian casualties on Thursday, said he had nothing to add to previous statements. The Kremlin said earlier this week it had no information on any casualties.
Reuters was unable to make direct contact with the contractors’ employers, the Wagner group, whose fallen fighters have in the past received medals from the Kremlin.
The military doctor said that a fellow doctor who flew to Syria on one of the recent medevac flights told him that around 100 people in the Russian force had been killed as of the end of last week, and 200 injured.
The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.
Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organization who has ties to Russian military contractors, said he had visited acquaintances injured in Syria at the defense ministry’s Central Hospital in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, on Wednesday.
He said the wounded men had told him that the two units of Russian contractors involved in the battle near Deir Ezzor numbered 550 men. Of those, there are now about 200 who are not either dead or wounded, the wounded men had told him.
Shabayev said the ward he visited contained eight patients, all evacuated from Syria in the past few days, and there were more in other wards in the hospital.
“If you understand anything about military action and combat injuries then you can imagine what’s going on there. That’s to say, constant screams, shouts,” Shabayev said. “It’s a tough scene.”
A source with ties to the Wagner organization, and who has spoken to people who took part in the February 7 clashes, said his contacts told him more than 80 Russian contractors were killed.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total of about 300 killed or injured was broadly correct.
He said many of the injured had shrapnel in their bodies that was not showing up on X-rays, making treatment difficult. “The prognosis for most of the wounded is dismal,” he said.
Other military hospitals treating the contractors are the Third Vishnevskiy hospital in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the Burdenko hospital near Moscow city center, and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, according to the doctor, Shabayev, and three other people who know dead or wounded fighters.
When Reuters contacted those hospitals by phone on Thursday, staff either declined to comment or denied having any patients evacuated from Syria.