The Russia-backed head of a separatist region in eastern Ukraine says he expects thousands of fighters from the Middle East to come to fight the Ukrainian forces.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the separatist government in the Donetsk region, said in remarks broadcast on Russian state television Saturday that “many thousands” of volunteers from the Middle East could shortly join the rebels and fight “shoulder-to-shoulder” against the Ukrainian army.

Pushilin’s remarks follow Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s comment on Friday that Russian authorities have received requests from over 16,000 people from the Middle East who are eager to join the Russian military action in Ukraine. He added that many of those people have previously fought together with Russia against the Islamic State group.

Russia has waged a military action in Syria since September 2015, helping President Bashar Assad’s government to reclaim control over most of the country in a devastating civil war. Shoigu’s statement followed Ukraine’s call on volunteers from foreign countries to come to help fight the Russian troops.

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