By Rinat Sagdiev, Maria Tsvetkova and Olena Vasina
In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination
When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble. “You too,” he warned.
The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.
The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.
The Airbus they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and U.S. aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions – moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.
The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organisation has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.
The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel they need to wage their military campaign.
It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria – a deployment the Kremlin insists does not exist
Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.
Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a U.S. government blacklist.
Asked about the flights and the activities of Russian private military contractors in Syria, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin referred Reuters to the Defence Ministry – which didn’t reply to the questions. The Syrian government also didn’t reply to questions.
In response to detailed Reuters questions, Cham Wings said only that information on where it flies was available on its website.
The flights to Rostov aren’t mentioned on the site. But the journeys do appear in online flight-tracking databases. Reporters traced flights between the Rostov airport and Syria from Jan. 5, 2017, to March 11, 2018. In that time, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers.
The issue of military casualties is highly sensitive in Russia, where memories linger of operations in Chechnya and Afghanistan that dragged on for years. Friends and relatives of the contractors suspect Moscow is using the private fighters in Syria because that way it can put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers, whose deaths have to be accounted for.
Forty-four regular Russian service personnel have died in Syria since the start of the operation there in September 2015, Russian authorities have said
This number does not include 39 Russian service personnel who died in a non-combat plane crash in Latakia on March 6. A Reuters tally based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials suggests that at least 40 contractors were killed between January and August 2017 alone.
One contractor killed in Syria left Russia on a date that tallies with one of the mysterious nighttime flights out of Rostov, his widow said. The death certificate issued by the Russian consulate in Damascus gave his cause of death as “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”
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