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Feb 14, 8:31 AM EST

Russia seeks to regulate private military contractors


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MOSCOW (AP) -- The Russian parliament is working on a bill to regulate private military companies, a senior lawmaker said Wednesday after reports that an unknown number of Russian military contractors were killed in a U.S. strike in Syria.

Retired Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the defense committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, said the government needs to oversee private military contractors.

"The state must be directly involved in issues related to the life and health of our citizens," he said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

Media reports said Russian private contractors were part of pro-Syrian government forces that attacked U.S.-backed fighters in the Deir el-Zour province in eastern Syria on Feb. 7 and faced a ferocious U.S. counterattack. At least four Russian citizens have been killed, according to their associates, and reports of more casualties have been trickling in.

Along with the Russian military, which has waged a military campaign in Syria backing the government since 2015, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought there as private contractors. The private fighters allowed the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its campaign in Syria low, helping to avoid negative publicity about Russia's involvement in Syria as President Vladimir Putin runs for re-election in the country's March 18 presidential vote.

Both Russian and U.S. officials said they had no information on Russian losses in Syria on Feb. 7. The Russian deaths in Syria at the hands of the U.S. military would be highly embarrassing for both Moscow and Washington and could further damage Russia-U.S. relations.

If officially confirmed, they would represent the first direct clash between Russian and U.S. forces in the chaotic Syrian battlefield - the long-feared scenario that Moscow and Washington have anxiously sought to avoid.

Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in the fight against opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States, and elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. U.S. and Russian military officials have maintained daily contact to avoid collisions between their forces.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials said they had no information on Russian casualties in the Feb. 7 clash, and the Kremlin did not confirm any Russian deaths.

The Russian Defense Ministry, which insisted that its troops weren't involved in the incident, said 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded in the U.S. strike.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reaffirmed Wednesday that the Kremlin has no information about the Russian losses in the clash. 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.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces have been vying with Russian-backed Syrian troops reinforced by Iranian-supported militias for control of the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province. But it was unclear why pro-government forces there advanced on an oil factory held by U.S.-backed fighters despite the obvious risks of facing a devastating U.S. counterattack.

Some observers alleged that the attackers might have been tempted to take over the oil facilities because of a rumored relocation of some of the Kurdish fighters there to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, which is facing a Turkish offensive.

If the attacking force had made such a calculation, it has proven deadly wrong.

For more than three hours, American F-15E attack jets, B-52 strategic bombers, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones fired on the attacking force, destroying an unspecified number of personnel, artillery guns and battle tanks, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, said Tuesday.

Many of the Russian private fighters in Syria reportedly work for The Wagner group, founded by retired Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin. He was targeted by U.S. sanctions after the Treasury Department said the company had recruited former soldiers to join the separatists fighting in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman dubbed "Putin's chef" because his restaurants and catering businesses once hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries, is also on the U.S. sanctions list. Prigozhin's assets include Evro Polis, an oil trading firm that reportedly has served as a front for Wagner's operations in Syria.

Last fall, The Associated Press obtained a copy of a 47-page five-year contract between Evro Polis and Syria's state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which said the Russian company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture from Islamic State militants.

Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, an investigative group analyzing Russian casualties in Syria, said the involvement of Russian private contractors in the Feb. 7 attack might have reflected a push for more oil assets.

Leviev said his group has confirmed the death of eight Russian private military contractors in the U.S. strike based on social media. 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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