WaPo: Key Russian oligarch in touch with Russia, Assad before mercenaries attacked US troops

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Washington (CNN)Before a Russian mercenary attack on US and allied forces in Syria earlier this month, the Russian oligarch believed to control the mercenaries -- a man who the US special counsel indicted last week -- was "in close touch" with Russian and Syrian officials, The Washington Post reported Thursday evening.

The Post, citing US intelligence reports, said intercepted communications showed the oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, told a Syrian official he had "secured permission" from a Russian minister for a "fast and strong" initiative.
US intelligence agencies declined to comment to the Post, and a senior administration official told the newspaper that the episode was "worrisome" and said it was striking how the Russians quickly distanced themselves from the attack.
The Russian press has dubbed Prigozhin the "chef" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Prigozhin was charged as part of the US investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
    The deadly February 7 incident in the war-torn nation has drawn considerable attention in international media, and it highlighted the continued level of violence in Syria as the conflict there rages on and global powers operate in support of competing factions.
    Friends and families of the Russian military contractors said the mercenaries were among the many killed in retaliatory US airstrikes in northern Syria earlier this month. The US initially expressed confusion about what had happened, with Defense Secretary James Mattis saying, "The Russians told us they had no forces there initially. I think that's still the case, but we don't have full clarity on what the regime forces are doing there."
    And Moscow at first downplayed reports of the mass Russian casualties as confusion around the incident remained.
    CNN previously reported the Russians were working for a paramilitary company, and they advanced on an oil and gas field controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed militia; despite an effort to establish communication through US-Russia deconfliction channels, the US airstrikes began, killing many of the Russians.
    This week, the Russian government admitted the nation suffered heavy casualties earlier this month in a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, saying "several dozen" Russians had been injured and an unspecified number died in US airstrikes on February 7.