The United States has been accused of killing “scores” of Russian fighters in the ongoing war in Syria.
Sources told Bloomberg that U.S. forces killed more than 200 contract soldiers, mostly Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, last week.
The sources, identified as one U.S. official and three Russians, said the Russians died in a failed attack on a base held by the United States.
The official said the death toll was around 100, with another 200 to 300 injured, although the Russians said more than double that number died.
Russia officially said it had nothing to do with the attack and the United States accepted the claim but is still in talks with Russian officials searching for an explanation of what happened, according to Bloomberg. The outlet said the assault may have been a rogue operation.
“This is a big scandal and a reason for an acute international crisis,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent political analyst. “But Russia will pretend nothing happened.”
To make things murkier, it’s not clear who was paying the Russians who were killed or wounded, with Russia, Syria, Iran, or another party possible.
“No one wants to start a world war over a volunteer or a mercenary who wasn’t sent by the state and was hit by Americans,” said Vitaly Naumkin, a senior adviser to Russia’s government on Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that five of its citizens were killed by a U.S. strike in Syria.
“According to preliminary information, five people, presumably Russian citizens, may have been killed in combat, the circumstances of which are being clarified,” Zakharova said in a briefing. “Some others have been injured, and it’s still necessary to check whether they are citizens of Russia or other nations.”
It marks the first time Russian and U.S. combatants have become directly engaged in combat in Syria, according to the outlet.
Russian forces are backing Assad while the United States is backing multiple opposition groups.
Both sides are fighting against the last remnants of ISIS, which was mostly destroyed by the United States in the last year.