• Thursday, June 20, 2024

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Colombo reports deaths of 16 mercenaries in Ukraine war

Minister to lead probe into impoverished citizens duped by false promises

Foreign soldiers, including those from south Asian countries, have fought in the Russian-Ukraine war.

By: Eastern Eye

AT LEAST 16 Sri Lankan mercenaries have been killed fighting in the war between Russia and Ukraine, the island’s deputy defence minister said last Wednesday (15).

 Thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began more than two years ago, and Moscow has been on a global quest for troops. 

 State Minister for Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya said, “The primary challenge lies in determining the exact number of individuals in Russia. As per unofficial sources, approximately 600-800 Sri Lankan individuals are in Russia.” 

 Sri Lanka will dispatch a high-level delegation to Russia to investigate the fate of hundreds of nationals reportedly fighting in the war in Ukraine. Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Kamal Gunaratne and a former ambassador to Russia will be among the delegates who will leave for Russia shortly, Balasuriya said.  

Soldiers from India and Nepal have also signed up to fight since last year, with several confirmed deaths in combat from citizens of both countries.  

Sri Lanka opened an inquiry earlier this month into the recruitment of its citizens for the conflict, which has since identified the participation of 288 retired soldiers from the island nation, Deputy Defence Minister Pramitha Tennakoon said.  

“We have confirmed information about 16 who have been killed,” he told reporters in Colombo. Tennakoon did not say which side of the conflict the soldiers had been fighting on.  

However, ruling party lawmaker Gamini Waleboda told parliament last Monday (13) that most of those who went had been recruited to fight alongside the Russian army. Those who joined had been duped with promises of high salaries and falsely told they would be given noncombat roles, Waleboda said.  

Tennakoon said the recruitment of Sri Lankans was being treated as a human trafficking enterprise and urged military officers not to fall prey to the recruitment drive. The Sri Lankan government was also in talks with both the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministries to track down Sri Lankans in the two countries and bring them back safely.  

“This is a delicate issue,” Tennakoon said. “We are friends with Russia, we are friends with Ukraine. Both are important for us, so we are talking to the foreign ministries to get our people back safely.”  

Social media campaigns via WhatsApp have targeted ex-military personnel with promises of lucrative salaries and promises of citizenship, the Defence Ministry said, warning its nationals not to be duped. The messages, sent by Sri Lankan nationals, provide a number to agents who then arrange the documentation and the flights.  

However, complaints began pouring in from relatives after the Defence Ministry established its probe last week to collect information on those who had travelled to both countries to join the war effort. The campaigns have proved appealing as Sri Lanka struggles to emerge from its worst financial crisis in more than seven decades, which has doubled poverty rates from pre-pandemic levels. 

 Sri Lanka has repeatedly warned its citizens against travelling to Russia or Ukraine to join the fighting. However, there are no restrictions on Sri Lankans travelling abroad. 

 Sri Lanka has maintained a large military relative to its 22 million population since the end of a decades-long civil war against the Tamil Tigers separatist forces in 2009. Its cash-strapped government has pledged to cut the size of its armed forces by half to 100,000 soldiers by the end of the decade as part of a broader austerity push since the crisis.  

Police arrested two retired army officers, including a major general, last week for illegally acting as recruiting agents for Russian mercenary firms. 

 India and Nepal have also confirmed that numerous citizens of those countries had been recruited to fight alongside the Russian army over the past year. 

 At least 22 Nepalis had been killed in combat, according to figures given to AFP by the Himalayan republic’s government on Wednesday. However, soldiers returning to Nepal from the conflict have said they believed the true toll was significantly higher. Russia’s army held off a much-hyped Ukrainian counter-offensive last year and has since made gains as Kyiv struggles with ammunition and manpower shortages. 

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