A video has emerged purporting to show Russian mercenaries torturing and beheading a Syrian army deserter, in what is thought to be rare footage of Moscow's shadowy paramilitary outfit operating in Syria.
The video, which dates to 2018 but was released on Russian social media site VK last week, appears to show Russian-speaking fighters striking the man with a sledgehammer before decapitating him and lynching his body.
Online sleuths used open-source intelligence to trace the footage to the Shaer oilfields in Homs, central Syria, which was under Russian and Syrian government control at the time.
Russia has been fighting on the side of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad since it intervened in the war in 2015.
The video is understood to have been posted by a private VK account linked to a shadowy group of Russian security contractors called Wagner Group.
The private security firm, which is largely made up of retired Russian soldiers, has waged secret wars on the Kremlin's behalf in Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic in recent years.
Moscow has never publicly acknowledged their presence in Syria. However, their role came to public attention after US air strikes on a Wagner position last year left dozens of contractors dead.
The victim in the video was named as Muhammad "Hamadi" Abdullah Al-Ismail, 32, from Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. Ismail had reportedly fled for neighbouring Lebanon seeking refuge a number of years ago.
He returned last year to Syria, where shortly after he was arrested and forcibly conscripted into the army.
He was accused of trying to flee his post by the contractors, who are seen in the video — which is too graphic to publish — briefly questioning him before pushing him to the ground.
In the video, his attackers accuse him of deserting his post. They laugh as they beat him unconscious then — beheaded him and cut off his forearms.
They hung him upside down and posed for a picture with his corpse before dousing it with petrol and igniting it.
The mercenaries were purportly discussing among themsevles whether they should cover their faces for the video, but agreed there is no point as "it's not going anywhere".
As the fighters begin lynching the body, they discuss where they should leave it: "Where the commander says," one of them says. “So, will we play football today?", asks another fighter as he kicks the decapitated head.