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Moscow distances itself from video of Syrian man beheaded by Russian speakers

Russian newspaper says killers are believed to be private mercenaries working for the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group
Moscow denies using military contractors in Syria and says any Russian civilians there are volunteers (AFP)

The Kremlin distanced itself on Thursday from a video showing four Russian-speaking men torturing, stabbing and beheading a Syrian man in 2017, saying the incident had nothing to do with Russia's military.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladmir Putin's spokesman, said he had not seen the footage, but added: "I am certain that this has no relation to Russian military operations in Syria."

Part of the video, obtained by Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, first appeared in June 2017.

The footage shows a man being beaten with a sledgehammer and decapitated with a spade before being strung up by his legs and his body set on fire.

The men responsible recorded their own video footage and made jokes as they dismembered the body.

Private mercenaries

On Wednesday, Novaya Gazeta said the men were believed to be private mercenaries for the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group. 

Novaya Gazeta said it has identified one of the men involved in the torture after new footage appeared on social media this month.

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The newspaper said it used face-recognition technology to name one of the perpetrators as Stanislav D and corroborated his identity through a copy of his passport and a Wagner questionnaire. 

Stanislav D reportedly served as a Wagner reconnaissance gunner. Large writing on the victim’s upside-down body said “for VDV [paratroopers] and reconnaissance” before the men burned it.

Last week, Middle East Eye reported how Russia has secretly used private military contractors from the Wagner Group in countries such as Syria and Libya, in coordination with the Russian military.

Wagner is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hotdog seller in Putin’s home city Leningrad, who became known as the president’s chef, running the lucrative catering contract for the Kremlin. 

Kremlin not an investigative body

Earlier this month, Arabic news outlet Jesr Press identified the victim in the video as Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah, a Syrian national.

When asked whether the Kremlin would look into the footage, given that it involved Russian speakers, Peskov said the Kremlin was not an investigative body.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he saw no risk of reputational damage to Russia because of the video (AFP)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he saw no risk of reputational damage to Russia because of the video (AFP)

Peskov said the Kremlin does not have information about the work of private companies and that he saw no risk of reputational damage to Russia because of the video.

"I can only talk about the actions and activities of Russian armed forces and units that act under orders from the supreme commander."

Russia denies using military contractors in Syria and says any Russian civilians there are volunteers.