Russian military contractors were among those killed when a U.S.-led coalition drone destroyed a Russian-designed tank in eastern Syria, Russian and U.S. officials said.
“We detected and saw a tank that took a shot at us,” Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command told reporters said via teleconference from Qatar.
“It continued to move, so we... executed self-defense rules of engagement to protect ourselves.”
Without mentioning the U.S. strike, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday “Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps.”
“Those steps look increasingly like part of efforts to create a quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory — from the eastern bank of the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq,” he said.
Reuters reported the names of at least two Russian men fighting informally with pro-Assad forces who were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province, citing interviews with their associates.
However, Harrigian refused to speculate on the composition of the hostile force. He also wouldn't even confirm whether Russian nationals were among the dead in the attack.
The attack comes just days after U.S. forces for several hours used drones and B-52 bombers against several hundred “pro-regime” fighters equipped with artillery and a tank in Deir el-Zour province, an area in eastern Syria where the last IS fighters have converged among oil fields.
Russian media have been reporting that dozens of Russians were among those killed when the U.S.-led coalition conducted air and artillery strikes on Feb. 7, killing an estimated 100 pro-regime fighters, according to a coalition statement.
The coalition described its action as being carried out in “self-defense.”