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Moscow denies ISIL captives are Russian soldiers

President's office cautions against reports but says will check whether captives in Deir Az Zor are Russian citizens.

Russian mercenaries

Russia has said media reports claiming two Russian soldiers were captured by ISIL in Syria "are hardly official information".

Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the Russian presidency, said on Wednesday that the reports should be viewed with caution but confirmed that authorities were checking whether the two captives are Russian citizens.

Peskov's statement came in response to a video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Tuesday showing what the armed group claimed were two Russian men captured in Al-Shalo village in Deir Az Zor province.

In the video posted to ISIL's Amaq website, a man speaking in Russian identifies himself as Roman Zabolotny from Rostovskaya region and says he was captured during an ISIL offensive in the village along with the man sitting next to him, whom he identifies as Gregory Tsurkanu Domodedovski region.

On Tuesday evening, the Russian ministry of defence said in a statement to Russian news agency RIA that none of its military personnel located in Syria had been captured.

According to Russian media reports, Zabolotny is a member of a Cossack organisation called Aksayska yurta. Cossack organisations are nationalistic paramilitary formations and are regulated by a special law in Russia. According to Russian media, Zabolotny and some of his fellow Cossacks tried to block the opening of a campaign office for opposition leader and presidential candidate Alexei Navalny in the city of Rostov-na-Don in April this year.  

Tsurkanu's brother Roman told local media that he was part of a private military company called Wagner and that he had been to Syria previously either in 2012 or 2013.

Wagner is the nom de guerre of Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian military officer and founder of the company.

In August 2016, Russian media outlet RBK reported that the use of Wagner mercenaries has cost Russia up to $170m since October 2015.

Maria Okuneva, a defence ministry spokesman, said that she could not comment on whether Zaobolotny and Turskanu are Russian military personnel.

Russian mercenaries?

According to Ruslan Leviev, a Moscow-based military researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team, both men are likely to be Russian mercenaries who were sent to fight in Deir Az Zor.

He said that Russia uses mercenaries who are mostly Russian citizens at the frontlines of Syria's war. By placing them in heavy battles, Russia can keep low the official number of troops killed, he said.

Deaths of mercenaries are not officially reported but according to Leviev, they could be in the hundreds.

Also on Tuesday, the Russian defence ministry announced that airstrikes by its airforce had killed 12 military commanders of the hardline group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (currently known as Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS).

In a statement, it said it had also injured Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, head of HTS, claiming he had lost his arm and was in critical condition.

According to Ahmad Aba Zeid, a Syrian researcher, the HTS has not responded officially to Russia's claims. Some of its supporters have denied that Joulani was injured, however.

"If Joulani dies, the HTS will disintegrate into various small groups," Aba Zeid said.

Aba Zeid confirmed that there were air strikes on Abu Alduhur airport and Reef Mohandeseen in the southern part of Aleppo province, where HTS headquarters are located.


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