Beirut: The Islamic State (ISIS jihadist group has claimed the killing of five Russian troops in fighting near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.
“The soldiers of the caliphate, by the grace of God, have killed five Russian soldiers and six members” of the Syrian army, ISIS said in a statement.
The group also claimed the killing of several members of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah group in the clashes near Palmyra. A website linked to ISIS, Aamaq, carried a similar claim, adding that one of the Russians killed was a military adviser.
“The fierce battles around Palmyra city in the east of Homs province left five Russian soldiers dead on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as several others from the Hezbollah militia and Afghan Shia militias,” Aamaq claimed.
“Four of the Russian soldiers were killed in Qasr al-Halabat west of Palmyra during an attempt to storm the area that ISIS forces foiled, while the advisor whose corpse was shown in a video distributed by the agency died (Thursday) in the Dawa area,” it added.
Aamaq was referring to a video showing the bloodied corpse of a man in military gear that it claimed was the adviser. The footage also shows equipment presumably captured after the clashes, including a customized AK-74M rifle, a helmet and a compass.
A packet of bandages was filmed with instructions written in Russian.
ISIS seized Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage Site in eastern Syria known as the “Pearl of the Desert”, last May, sending shock waves across the world.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said Russian advisers were present near Palmyra, but it could not confirm whether any Russian forces had been killed there in recent days.
President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer, on Monday ordered the withdrawal of most of Russia’s armed forces from Syria. The Russian air force has however continued to strike jihadist targets since the surprise announcement, particularly around Palmyra.
At a news briefing on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not confirm either the presence of Russian advisers around Palmyra or the ISIS claim of the soldiers’ killing. “The advance (on Palmyra) is carried out by contingents of the Syrian army,” Peskov said.
On Thursday, however, Putin had warned that Russia would remain engaged in Syria’s war. “Our uncompromising attitude to terrorism remains unchanged,” he said, adding that “fierce fighting” was raging near Palmyra. Putin also named four Russians, including a military adviser, killed in action in Syria since Moscow launched its military intervention on September 30.
Previously, the defence ministry’s official toll had been three, excluding a soldier who reportedly committed suicide.
A total of 1,799 Syrian civilians including 431 children have been killed in Russian air strikes, according to an updated toll by the observatory. Another 1,276 ISIS members have also died, as have 1,567 rebels and fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, it added.
The observatory accused Russia, a permanent UN security council member, of being “a key accomplice” in the killing of Syrian civilians, on a daily, continuous basis, using the fight against ISIS as an excuse.
Moscow has denied claims of hitting civilian and non-jihadist rebel targets.