By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Small numbers of serving or former Russian soldiers have been geolocated in Syria, including locations near Hama, Aleppo and Homs, Russian bloggers said on Sunday, suggesting that the Kremlin's operation stretches well beyond its air campaign.
Russia first launched air strikes to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's four-year civil war on Sept. 30 but has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of mounting a ground operation. It has instead said it will limit its help to military trainers, advisers and deliveries of military equipment.
U.S. security officials and independent experts told Reuters last week that Moscow had increased its forces in Syria to 4,000 personnel, from an estimated 2,000, and a U.S. defense official said that multiple rocket-launcher crews and long-range artillery batteries were deployed outside four bases the Russians were using.
Sunday's report by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of Russian investigative bloggers, said that social media had been used to geolocate three Russian serving or former soldiers in Syria.
"Although we still don't have indisputable evidence of Russian servicemen taking a direct part in the fighting on the ground in Syria, we believe the situation observed contradicts the claims of Russian officials that Russian troops are not taking part and are not planning to take part in ground operations,” CIT said.
Russia's military jets are based in Latakia in western Syria, far from where the three men were geolocated.
SOCIAL MEDIA SCREENSHOTS
The Russian defense ministry did not respond to a written request for comment from Reuters on Sunday to respond to CIT's findings and clarify the nature of its ground operations.
CIT published screenshots from a social media account belonging to Ayas Saryg-Ool, a soldier it said served in Russia’s 74th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, and from an account belonging to Vladimir Boldyrev, who it suggested was a Russian marine from the 810th Separate Marine Brigade.
It showed both of them had recently posted pictures with geolocation tags in Hama Province. Saryg-Ool’s page, which had previously shown him posing with a heavy machine gun and in the cab of what CIT said was an artillery tow truck, was not available on Sunday. Boldyrev did not reply to a message from Reuters.
CIT also published screenshots from the Instagram page of Ilya Gorelykh, who it said had served in Russia's GRU special forces in the past. In late October it showed he had uploaded pictures from Aleppo, one of which showed him holding an assault rifle while wearing civilian clothes. Another image, of him posing in camouflage with three other armed men, was apparently taken in Homs.
The pictures were not available on his account on Sunday.
CIT, led by Ruslan Leviev, has previously worked to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine and in late October was the first to report the first confirmed death of a Russian soldier in Syria.
(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by David Goodman)