World and Canadian News

In the World

Russian mercenaries killed by U.S. forces in Syria: reports

By Robert Burns and Vladimir Isachenkov/The Associated Press/Feb. 13, 2018  

WASHINGTON -- It's a scenario many feared in the fog of Syria's multi-front war: a confrontation in which U.S. forces, responding to a provocation, kill Russian soldiers or mercenaries on a crowded battlefield.

Russian news reports Tuesday described just such a scenario, with an unknown number of Russian military contractors killed in a ferocious U.S. counterattack last week. But Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials said they had no such information on casualties, and the Kremlin did not confirm any Russian deaths. U.S. officials also said the Russian government had lodged no complaint about its citizens being killed.

What is not disputed is the fast-changing, often confusing nature of a battlefield in which forces of multiple countries are bumping up against one another, raising the prospect of violent collisions. Whether by accident or intention, such clashes risk plunging Washington and Moscow into a situation they studiously avoided even during some of the darkest hours of their relationship: their forces directly warring with each other.

Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in its war with opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States. Elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. And U.S. and Russian military officials maintain daily contact to avoid battlefield mishaps.

Beyond doubt is the ferocious scale of the U.S. attack on Feb. 7, in response to what the Pentagon called a barrage of artillery and tank fire from several hundred "pro-regime" fighters in Deir el-Zour province, an area in eastern Syria where the last IS fighters have converged among oil fields. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. air forces in the Middle East, told reporters a broad range of U.S. air power was unleashed.

For more than three hours, American F-15E attack planes, B-52 strategic bombers, AC-130 gunships, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones fired on the attacking ground force, which Harrigian said was advancing under covering fire from artillery, mortars, rockets and tank rounds. The air power stopped the attackers' advance and destroyed an unspecified number of artillery guns and battle tanks, he said, but gave no estimate of casualties or full picture of the assailants.

"As the hostile forces turned west and retreated, we ceased fire," Harrigian, speaking from his headquarters in Qatar, said in a video teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.

In a second episode, the U.S. struck a Russian-made T-72 battle tank on Saturday after it "took a shot at us" in the same general area of Deir el-Zour province, Harrigian said, adding that he did not know who was operating the tank.

Russian media said Russian private contractors were part of pro-Syrian government forces that advanced on oil fields in the Deir el-Zour province and were targeted by the United States. The reports cited activists who said that at least four Russian citizens were killed in Syria on Feb. 7.

The Russian Defence Ministry charged that the incident reflected a U.S. push to grab Syria's economic assets under the cover of fighting the Islamic State group.

Without mentioning the U.S. strike, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that "Americans have taken dangerous unilateral steps."

"Those steps look increasingly like part of efforts to create a quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory -- from the eastern bank of the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq," he said.

The state news agency Tass on Tuesday cited Natalya Krylova, a municipal lawmaker in the town of Asbestos in the Urals, saying local residents Igor Kosoturov and Stanislav Matveyev were killed in Syria on Feb. 7. The Interfax news agency reported that a Cossack group in the westernmost Kalningrad region said a member named Vladimir Loginov was killed in combat in the Deir el-Zour province. It also quoted Alexander Averin, the leader of extreme leftist group Another Russia, saying that one of its activists, Kirill Ananyev, was killed by the U.S. strike near Khusham, where the U.S. said its counterattack occurred.

Russian media also cited unconfirmed claims that overall casualties could have been as high as 200 and Russians could have accounted for the bulk of them. Those claims couldn't be verified.

Asked at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about Russian deaths, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said, "From an intelligence perspective, we have seen in multiple instances foreign forces using mercenaries in battles that will begin to approach the United States." He deferred on the specifics on the incident to the Pentagon.

Mattis, speaking to reporters Tuesday while travelling in Europe, was adamant he knew of no Russian contractors killed in the fighting, which he attributed to a surprising assault in light of obvious U.S. advantages, including overwhelming air power.

"I don't have any reporting" about Russians being among the casualties, Mattis said. "I can't give you anything on that. We have not received that word" at key U.S. military headquarters, including the Pentagon.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, wouldn't comment on the reports either, saying they needed to be verified.

He also said Putin didn't speak about anything related to Syria in a phone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday.

--- Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press reporters Deb Riechmann and Josh Lederman contributed from Washington and Lolita C. Baldor from Brussels.

And in Canada

Canada’s Kim Boutin receiving online death threats following her speedskating bronze-medal win

By Adam Frisk/Global News/Feb. 13, 2018

Canada’s Kim Boutin has been subjected to online threats following her bronze-medal win in the 500-metre short-track speedskating event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Boutin won with a time of 43.881 seconds, which put her in fourth. But the athlete from Sherbrooke, Que., was bumped up to third after South Korea’s Minjeong Choi was disqualified for interfering with the Canadian in Tuesday’s event.

Arianna Fontana of Italy won gold in 42.569 seconds while Yara van Kerkhof was second in 43.256.

Following her win, Boutin’s social media accounts were bombarded by apparent angry South Korean fans, some threatening the speedskater with her life.

According to Radio-Canada, most of the threats were posted on Boutin’s Instagram page, which has been turned to a private account.

“If I find you, you will die,” reads one comment, according to Radio-Canada. “Retire and I hope you have a hard life.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) issued a statement Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Korea time) saying both the RCMP and Speed Skating Canada are looking into the threats.

“The health, safety and security of all our team members is our top priority and as such we are working closely with Speed Skating Canada, our security personnel and the RCMP,” the COC said in a statement. “We will not make further comment on this issue, so that Kim can focus on her upcoming events.”  u

Nunavut project to collect Inuit elder testimony on Franklin shipwreck sites

By Levi Garber/The Canadian Press/Feb. 13, 2018

Parks Canada is launching a new initiative in Nunavut to collect and share the testimony of Inuit elders who have knowledge of the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845.

The project is seeking a contractor to conduct archival research and record interviews with Inuit elders with historical knowledge of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror shipwreck sites.

The two ships were part of Sir John Franklin's 1845 quest to find the elusive Northwest Passage and their disappearance remains a mystery today. The expedition's 129 crew members were never found.

Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment and minister in charge of Parks Canada, acknowledged the integral role Inuit oral history played in the search for the Franklin shipwrecks.

"In this case, we know that Inuit knowledge helped to find the ships," said McKenna.

It's important that the Inuit stay involved -- for their own sake as well as Canada's, the minister added.

"I think there's been a lot of focus on European explorers," she said. "Maybe it's time to put more of the focus on the Inuit."

Parks Canada archeologists located the wrecked HMS Erebus off the coast of King William Island in 2014 with the help of Inuit historical knowledge passed on orally over generations. The HMS Terror was found at the bottom of Terror Bay two years later, nearly 100 kilometres away.

The new project's co-ordinators are hoping to collect similar knowledge and testimony from Inuit elders to fill gaps in contemporary research on the history of the wreckage sites.

Tamara Tarasoff, the project manager of the shipwrecks' historic sites, said she's hopeful the project will be a success.

"Now that we have the wrecks, it's time to continue with engaging in additional oral history research," Tarasoff said.

"It could be new stories, new observations, or new information that we're able to glean from engaging in oral history research with the Inuit of King William Island," she said.

Parks Canada would like to produce video and audio of the testimonies as well as a book with up to 100 images of the site, including archival photographs.

Louie Kamookak, a leading Inuit historian and educator whose work helped locate the Erebus, said he is encouraged by the project.

"Today's younger generations have gotten away from the Inuit oral history," Kamookak said in an email. "Preserving Inuit oral history in today's technology would be the only way to pass the stories, knowledge, and culture in any aspect of our amazing ancestors that once lived where no other people chose to live."

Kamookak added that although Parks Canada approached him to help with the initiative, he is unsure whether he will, mainly because of his personal health issues.

The tender is open for bidding until March 27.