Mike Pompeo, the CIA director tapped by President Trump to be the next secretary of state, revealed Thursday that scores of Russians were recently killed by U.S. forces in Syria.
Pompeo made the remark while appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a confirmation hearing, as he seeks to succeed Rex Tillerson as head of the State Department. The statement, reported by CNN's Jim Sciutto, revealed something that no U.S. officials have publicly confirmed before: that a U.S.-led coalition killed Russian fighters in a February battle in eastern Syria. The U.S. and Russia are involved in a proxy war in Syria, where government forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are battling various rebel groups, but neither country wants to escalate the fighting into a direct conflict between Moscow and Washington.
Russia confirmed in February that "several dozen" Russians were killed or wounded in Syria. At least some of those killed were reportedly mercenaries, paid soldiers fighting for the Kremlin-backed Syrian government.
The U.S. kept fairly quiet about the clash, though one anonymous official told Bloomberg that U.S. forces were responsible for the Russian deaths. Still, Pompeo's explanation to lawmakers that "a couple hundred Russians were killed" at Thursday's public hearing was the first time a U.S. official confirmed the reports.
Moscow denies sending soldiers to fight in Syria, calling them "volunteers," and the U.S. has taken pains to avoid addressing direct conflict with Russia in Syria, lest the proxy war escalate. An American military spokesman told The New York Times that the U.S. would not create conflict with Russian forces and said that only Syrian troops were targeted.