U.S. military forces in the Middle East nearly bombed a group of Russian mercenaries working with pro-government forces in Syria for a second time, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis revealed Tuesday.

Mattis, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, also defended the mass expulsion of Russian intelligence officers around the world in response to Moscow’s use of a deadly nerve agent in attempting to assassinate a defector in Britain.

On the Syrian incident, Mattis said within the past week a group of Russian mercenaries moved across a river that was a line set up to deconflict U.S.-backed and Russian-backed rebel groups and into an area were Russians were not supposed to be operating.

“These were forces moving into more advanced positions, too close,” he said.

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