The Kremlin has sought to cast doubt on a report that it has sent as many as 400 private military contractors to Venezuela to help embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro strengthen security amid opposition protests and a competing claim to leadership by opposition head Juan Guaido.
Speaking in a January 27 appearance on a weekly show on state-run Rossia-1 television, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, was asked, "So are 400 of our fighters guarding Maduro in Venezuela or not?"
He responded with a Russian saying that can be translated as, "Fear has 100 eyes," suggesting reports citing that figure were exaggerated or untrue, but did not answer the question directly.
Peskov was then asked whether the Kremlin would "officially confirm" any such reports and responded, "Of course not."
He was not asked directly whether any Russian military contractors had been sent to Venezuela and did not volunteer that information.
In a January 25 report, the Reuters news agency cited two sources it did not identify as saying that private Russian military contractors had flown to Venezuela in the previous few days to beef up security for Maduro.
The sources told Reuters that the contractors are associated with the so-called Vagner group of mostly former Russian service personnel who have been involved in clandestine operations in foreign countries.
Yevgeny Shabayev, head of the All-Russia Officers Assembly with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela could be around 400, although other sources spoke of smaller numbers.
Previously, Peskov's only comment on the Reuters report was that the Kremlin “has no such information.”
Dmitry Aleshkovsky, a prominent Russian activist and blogger, says he found evidence suggesting that state-owned airline Rossia could have carried out a flight that was mentioned by Reuters to deliver the contractors.
He said an Il-96 with the tail number RA-96019 flew on January 19 from Moscow to Senegal, then on January 23 to Paraguay, and from there on the same day toward Havana until the plane’s transponder -- used for tracking purposes -- was turned off.
Aleshkovsky said that according to publicly available data, the plane landed twice more – possibly in Havana and in Caracas. After that, the transponder was turned back on and data show the plane landed back in Moscow.
Private Russian military contractors have been reported in other countries, including Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
On January 23, Russia Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed that military contractors were operating in Sudan after British press reports stated that they were helping to crack down on protesters in that country, which is an ally of Moscow.
But she denied they had anything to do with Russian state bodies.
Guaido, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, on January 23 declared himself acting president in Caracas, as tens of thousands of people marched across the country against Maduro. Dozens of protesters have been killed in the unrest.
On January 26, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all UN members to recognize Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, calling Maduro's government an "illegitimate mafia state" and a "socialist experiment” that has caused the economy to collapse.
"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem," Pompeo said at a January 26 special session of the UN Security Council.
Maduro, who took office in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, has been criticized for alleged human rights abuses and for his handling of Venezuela's economy.
Maduro was sworn in for a second term two weeks ago but has been met by international condemnation.
An estimated 3 million people have fled the country amid shortages of items like medicine and food.