A Russian special forces officer has been killed near the ancient city of Palmyra that was seized by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) last year, various news outlets have reported, citing Russian agencies.
The news of the Russian military fatality came on Thursday, the same day that Bashar al-Assad regime forces were reported to have entered Palmyra in an effort to retake the city, which was conquered by ISIS in May 2015.
According to the Associated Press (AP), “The extremist group has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq for months under a stepped-up campaign of U.S.-led and Russian airstrikes, as well as ground assaults by multiple forces in each country.”
The Syrian troop offensive to seize back Palmyra is reportedly backed by Shiite militiamen, many of whom are backed by Iran.
Tehran, its terror proxy Hezbollah, Assad, and Russia have formed an alliance to combat Syrian opposition forces. The opposition troops, deemed terrorists by the coalition, include U.S.-backed groups.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that an unnamed military representative of Russia’s base in Syria was quoted by Russian news outlets as saying, ”An officer of Russian special operations forces was killed near Palmyra while carrying out a special task to direct Russian airstrikes at Islamic State group targets.”
The anonymous Russian representative did not provide a specific date for when the incident occurred, notes AFP.
“The officer was carrying out a combat task in area for a week, identifying crucial IS targets and passing exact coordinates for strikes with Russian planes,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
“The officer died as a hero, he drew fire onto himself after being located and surrounded by terrorists,” added the representative.
Moscow has kept secret the presence of any Russian military troops in Syria since it began an intervention on behalf of Assad at the end of September 2015.
“Last week IS-linked media said that five Russian special forces were killed near Palmyra, publishing pictures from their cellphones and a video showing a bloodied corpse,” reports AFP.
Nevertheless, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, was quoted at the time as saying that no Russian officers were participating in the advance on Palmyra, adding that “the advance is carried out by contingents of the Syrian army.”
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of sources on the ground, reported that the Assad regime troops, backed by Shiite militiamen, were facing tough resistance on the ground from ISIS as they attempted to enter Palmyra, also known as Tadmur.
According to the Observatory, ISIS has lost more than 200 of its fighters since the Syrian government offensive to retake Palmyra began 17 days ago. It did not provide figures for Syrian government casualties.
Russian defense ministry officials reportedly revealed that Moscow has conducted at least 146 airstrikes on “terrorist targets” in the vicinity of Palmyra area since last Wednesday.
The recent fatality would bring to seven the number of Russian troops known to have been killed in Syria, since the Kremlin began its military campaign last year, notes Reuters.
Ten days ago, Russia claimed it was winding down its military intervention in Syria.
“On Wednesday, Russia said for the first time that it has special forces in combat roles in Syria, suggesting the Kremlin has been more deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict than it has previously acknowledged,” reports Reuters.
“For months, Moscow said that its role in Syria was limited to carrying out air strikes, advising and training the Syrian army, as well as performing search and rescue operations for downed aircraft as well as protecting Russian bases,” it adds.