Avi Issacharov and Reuters – August 8, 2012
A Russian general met reporters at the Defense Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday to deny reports that he had been killed by rebel forces in Syria and was shown on television looking well.
“I want to confirm that I am alive and well. I am in good health and I’m living in Moscow,” Vladimir Petrovich Kuzheyev, a reserve general, was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.
Russian television briefly showed footage of Kuzheyev, in a blue shirt and no tie, at the Defence Ministry.
Syrian rebel group said it had killed a Russian general working as an adviser to Syria’s defence ministry in an operation in the western Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.
The video, sent to Reuters, showed what the rebels said was a copy of the general’s ID, as issued by the Syrian military, and named him as Vladimir Petrovich Kochyev.
The difference between that spelling and the name of the general who appeared in Moscow may be due to the way the Cyrillic letters were transcribed.
Kuzheyev did not make clear whether he had been in Syria. But Interfax news agency quoted a security source as saying he had been there advising the Syrian Defence Ministry before being transferred to the reserves in 2010. It said he now lived in Moscow.
Russian news agencies quoted the Russian Defence Ministry as saying the report of his death was a “bald-faced lie.”
Russia is one of the few countries that has backed Assad diplomatically ever since the popular uprising against his rule began 17 months ago. It is believed to have several hundred military personnel in Syria.
The Free Syrian Army’s claim was published in a report on Al Arabiya on Wednesday, claims that Kuzheyev was serving as a security adviser to the Syrian defense minister, who was also killed in Damascus roughly a month ago. Kojai’s personal translator was also killed.
The Syrian rebels also stated that they obtained documents and maps belonging to the Syrian Army, which show opposition positions throughout the country. The rebels said Kuzheyev was killed outside of Damascus, when according to reports, his bodyguards attempted to open fire on a Free Syrian Army roadblock. The rebels told “Al-Arabiya” that the Russian adviser’s presence in Syria is further evidence of Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis.
In a video statement sent to Reuters, the group, calling itself the “Hawks Special Operations Battalion, a division of the Military Leadership of Damascus City and Province”, showed what the rebels said was a copy of the general’s ID, as issued by the Syrian military.
Many thousands of Russian professionals reside in Syria, some of which work on civil projects that Russia built for Assad, others serve as advisers to the Syrian military with operating sensitive intelligence equipment. Last month, the head of the Arabic-language television network “Russia Today,” broadcast in Moscow, claimed that “there are no longer any Russian military personnel in Syria.”
The network is an official outlet of the Russian government (a parallel network is broadcast in English). Apparently, that claim is incorrect, though it demonstrates the need to begin recalling Russian proessionals from Syria, because of the danger, and also because of the need to reduce ties with Assad.
Pressure is mounting on Russia from Arab nations to stop supporting the regime in Damascus. Over the weekend, Russian news agencies reported that Russia sent three large naval vessels to Tartarus, a port in northern Syria, each carrying 120 soldiers. The objective of the mission was not stated, though Russia had previously stated its intention to send forces to Syria to retrieve equipment and evacuate Russian nationals. Over the last few months, numerous ships have set sail for Tartarus, among them aircraft carries and battleships.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that plans can be drawn up for the day after the Assad regime collapses, following the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab to Jordan earlier this week.
Clinton said it was vital that government institutions remain intact in Syria, and that a civil war should be avoided. Anyone who wants to exploit the Syrian people’s difficult situation by sending in mercenaries or terrorists should be warned that this is not acceptable, she said.
Also on Tuesday, Assad appeared on television for the first time in two weeks, in footage showing him meeting with Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in Damascus.