The Kremlin says it has nothing to do with Russian civilians fighting in Syria but on three recent occasions groups of men flying in from Damascus headed straight to a defense ministry base in Molkino, Reuters reporters witnessed.
Molkino in southwestern Russia is where the Russian 10th Special Forces Brigade is based, according to information on the Kremlin website.
The destination of the Russians arriving from Syria provides rare evidence of a covert Russian mission in Syria beyond the air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops acknowledged by Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Feb. 14 Russians may be in Syria but “they are not part of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. He referred Reuters to the defense ministry when asked why civilians fighting in Syria return to a military base. The ministry did not immediately respond.
A duty officer at the 10th special forces brigade, asked why non-military people were entering the military base, said: “Nobody enters it, as far as I am aware … You’ve seen them, okay. But you should not believe everything … You can maybe. But how can we comment on what other organizations do?”
More than 2,000 Russian contractors are fighting to help Syrian forces recapture land from their opponents, several sources, including one contractor, have said.
The contractors are transferred by Syrian airline Cham Wings, the sources said.
Reuters reporters saw a Syrian Cham Wings charter flight from Damascus land at the civilian airport in Rostov-on-Don on April 17 and watched groups of men leave the terminal through an exit separate from the one used by ordinary passengers.
They boarded three buses, which took them to an area mainly used by airport staff. A luggage carrier brought numerous oversized bags and the men, dressed in civilian clothes, got off the buses, loaded the bags and got back on.
The three buses then left the airport in convoy and headed south; two made stops near cafes along the way and one on the roadside. All three reached the village of Molkino, 350 km (220 miles) south, shortly before midnight.