The United States is pushing back against claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Islamic State terror group is starting to execute hundreds of hostages in Syria, including U.S. and European nationals.
Putin made the claims Thursday during the Valdai forum in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, saying IS had taken 700 people from a displaced persons camp near Deir el-Zour in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces.
“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands, and warned that if these ultimatums are not met, they will execute 10 people every day,” Putin said without elaborating on the demands. “The day before yesterday, they executed 10 people.”
US officials are ‘skeptical’
U.S. officials said Thursday that while there was an attack on the camp, the rest of the Russian president’s claims, which echoed reporting by Russia’s TASS news agency, were unsubstantiated.
“We are skeptical of its accuracy,” Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said in a statement to VOA.
“We have no information supporting the large number of hostages alleged by President Putin,” Robertson added. “We are also unaware of any U.S. nationals located in that camp.”
The Pentagon also rejected Russian allegations that the U.S. and its coalition allies had failed to stem the threat from IS.
“The coalition has liberated more than 99 percent of the territory previously held by ISIS,” Robertson said, using another acronym for the terror group.
“Russia, on the other hand, has focused its efforts exclusively on aiding the Syrian regime with limited steps to address the threat posed by ISIS and without regard for the laws of armed conflict, civilian casualties or regime use of chemical weapons,” he said.
US ‘did not finish their job’
During his appearance in Sochi, Putin told the audience that U.S.-backed forces fighting against IS “did not finish their job.”
“There are ISIS members remaining in several places,” Putin said. “And they have started to broaden their presence recently.”
U.S. military officials have been warning for months that IS remains a potent threat, despite the collapse of its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
IS fighters still cling to a small slip of land in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley, near the towns of Hajin and Abu Kamal.
U.S. and coalition-backed forces have been battling to oust IS from the area for over a month. But U.S. officials say progress has been slowed by the terror group’s extensive use of booby traps, improvised explosive devices and a network of tunnels.
The most recent U.S. intelligence puts the total number of IS fighters at 28,000 to 32,000, roughly split between Iraq and Syria. Of those, up to about 9,000 are believed to be in areas controlled by Russia, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran.