Widespread claims that Russian bombing of Syria killed hundreds of civilians are "propaganda" and none were actually killed, the country's ambassador to Britain has claimed.
As it was reported that Russia's five-month campaign in the country had killed 2,000 civilians, Alexander Yakovenko maintained the jets had "never targeted" civilians and had actually "destroyed the infrastructure which supported ISIS".
Speaking on Tuesday, the day the Russians began withdrawing from the war-torn state, the ambassador told Channel 4 News the alleged killings were "the propaganda in the press".
His extraordinary comments come after Russia was accused of bombing civilian areas and more moderate enemies of the Assad regime during its campaign to keep the Syrian president in power after years of inconclusive, bloody fighting.
Any strategic benefits of Russia’s intervention have come at a huge cost to civilians, with all local casualty recorders in agreement that 2,000 or more non-combatants have died," Chris Woods, director of monitoring organisation Airwars, told The Guardian.
"Thousands more opposition fighters have also died, in a Russian campaign which has outstripped the [US-led] coalition both in terms of tempo and aggressiveness."
But Yakovenko told presenter Cathy Newman: "It’s not true. I asked formally the Foreign Office to give me the facts because we’re recording everything.
"So from the aircraft, from space, every strike is tracked and recorded. And we are ready to make the investigation but I didn’t receive any single formal request... We never bombed the cities. We just destroyed the bases, the infrastructure and our aircrafts never targeted the civilian targets."
The full exchange:
Cathy Newman: You killed with your airstrikes a thousand or more civilians.
Alexander Yakovenko: It’s not true. I asked formally the Foreign Office to give me the facts because we’re recording everything. So from the aircraft, from space, every strike is tracked and recorded. And we are ready to make the investigation but I didn’t receive any single formal request. This is the propaganda in the press. Present us with the facts that we can investigate and we will be ready to give the facts we have, recordings, support, everything, we have it.
CN: Are you saying not a single civilian has been killed in this entire five month campaign?
AY: Not to my knowledge. That is good and I’ll tell you why. It’s because we never bombed the cities. We just destroyed the bases, the infrastructure and our aircrafts never targeted the civilian targets.
CN: What is your response to the remarks from the British Foreign Secretary who said that Russia should get no credit for withdrawing for what he called illegal activities and that Russia was like someone who just stopped beating his wife?
AY: No it’s not the case because for five months we were working hard. There were 9,000 flights, we liberated 10,000 kilometres of land, 400 villages and towns. We basically destroyed the infrastructure which supported ISIS. And the political process is starting in Geneva. So basically we prepared everything and I would like to say that there is a ceasefire in Syria and there is less job to do for our aircraft and there is no need to keep such forces there because we are moving in the direction of the political process. That’s exactly what we agreed in Vienna.
The interview followed damning comments from Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond earlier on Tuesday, who said praising Russia planned's departure from Syria was like asking whether a man had "stopped beating his wife".
"Unfortunately none of us knows what the intent of Mr Putin is when he carries out any action, which is why he is a very difficult partner in any situation like this," he said.