Russia has been secretly sending private military contractors to Syria on civilian aircraft, according to a Reuters investigation. One reporter posted at Rostov airport in southern Russia saw men with “overstuffed military-style rucksacks” lined up underneath check-in desks with “no flight number or destination.” When asked by the reporter where they were going, one man 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.” The reporter also observed men getting off a plane with “camouflage gear and khaki desert boots... and toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.” Reuters used records and publicly available data to track flights from Rostov airport to Syria between Jan. 5, 2017, to March 11, 2018. During that time, the Syrian airline that operates the flights, Cham Wings, made 51 round trips. Some of the civilian aircraft used in the secret flights had been “passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions,” Reuters found. These changes in ownership have allegedly helped Syria skirt U.S. sanctions, according to the report. Some aircraft flying in Iran and Syria passed through the hands of Ukrainian aviation firms Khors and Dart, Reuters found. Russia has not been forthcoming about its use of contracted fighters in Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and families of those killed are demanding answers.
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