A Russian military adviser has been killed by mortar fire in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday.
The ministry said the officer was fatally wounded Monday by mortar shelling from the Islamic State group. Its statement, carried by Russian news agencies, said the officer was helping train the Syrian military in using Russian weapons. It said the officer will be posthumously awarded with a medal, but didn’t identify him or specify where he died.
The officer’s death is the third combat casualty the Russian military has suffered since it launched its air campaign in Syria four months ago.
A Russian pilot whose warplane was downed by a Turkish fighter at the Syrian border was shot dead by militants as he descended by parachute on Nov. 24. His crewmate survived and was evacuated to safety, but a Russian marine was killed in action during the rescue mission.
Moscow says its air campaign has targeted the IS and other extremists and rejects claims by the U.S. and its allies that moderate opposition groups also have been hit by Russian strikes.
Russia’s air blitz has helped the Syrian military launch offensives and regain ground in several areas, strengthening the government’s hand in peace talks launched in Geneva.
Speaking during a trip to Oman Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the Syrian opposition demand to halt airstrikes, saying they will continue until the IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups are defeated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out Russian troops’ involvement in ground action in Syria. However, Russia has sent an unknown number of military advisers to Syria and also deployed ground troops guarding the Russian air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the main stronghold of President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Moscow says that Russian military advisers are in Syria to help its army master weapons provided by Russia and insists that they haven’t joined combat.
However, speaking in December at a meeting honoring Russian military officers for their action in Syria, Putin said that “positive things have happened there thanks to you and your comrades, who have been working in the air, and, in fact, have been leading the Syrian military units.”
The statement signaled a high degree of Russian military involvement in coordinating Syrian army action.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said then that the president’s statement didn’t mean that Russian military officers have been put in charge of some Syrian army units but referred to a “coordination of Syrian army’s offensive operations with air support.”