MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian Defence Ministry on Wednesday dismissed as false a Reuters report which said Russia had understated the number of its servicemen and private contractors killed during a period of intense fighting to retake the city of Palmyra.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that the death toll over the period from late January until late March was 21, more than four times higher than the official toll given by the defense ministry of five servicemen killed.
Russian forces are backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with rebels and militants seeking to oust him, and Reuters did its own calculation of the Palmyra death toll based on conversations with friends and relatives of the killed men, social media posts, and cemetery officials.
The Syrian army said in early March it had recaptured Palmyra from Islamic State for the second time in a year, with help from allied forces and Russian warplanes. The Russian Defence Ministry said at the time that its own military advisers had planned and overseen the operation and that Russian special forces had played a decisive role.
The Russian defense ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the casualty figures on Tuesday, but on Wednesday issued a statement saying that the Reuters report was false.
It said the article was "a totally deceitful combination of rumors, collected in a slapdash way in order to distract attention from the fake show of the so-called chemicals dropped on Syria's Khan Sheikhoun."
Scores of people died after exposure to poison gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province, on April 4. Western governments said Syrian government forces had dropped chemical weapons on the town, but Russia denied that, saying the chemical attack had been faked.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe; Editing by Toby Chopra)