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Parents Say Russian Army Lying About Soldier's Suicide

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 27/10/2015 Alana Horowitz Satlin
ATHENA IMAGE © Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

 By Maria Tsvetkova

GRECHANAYA BALKA, Russia, Oct 27 (Reuters) - The parents of a 19-year-old Russian soldier serving in Syria said on Tuesday they had been informed that their son had hanged himself there, the country's first confirmed fatality since the Kremlin launched a campaign of air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30.

In an interview with Reuters at their home in southern Russia, Alexander and Svetlana Kostenko said they did not believe that their son, Vadim, would have taken his own life.

"I will never believe this version (suicide)," said Svetlana, who was wearing a black head scarf. She said she had spoken to Vadim as recently as Saturday, the day he died.

"We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. (On Saturday) he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed," she said.

Alexander, Vadim's father, speaking in a low voice, agreed: "We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well."

Kostenko was one of the Russian air force's support staff. He signed a contract on June 20 and was dispatched to Syria by plane on Sept. 14, two weeks before the Kremlin's air campaign began, his father said. He said they had only discovered Vadim was in Syria when he was already there.

His death is the first confirmed Russian fatality in Syria. Opinion polls suggest public support for the Kremlin's air campaign against Islamist militants there remains high; one survey put support above 70 percent. If the air force suffers serious fatalities, sentiment could change however.

Kostenko's death was first flagged by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of bloggers led by Ruslan Leviev who have previously worked to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine, where Russia denies its soldiers are fighting despite what Western countries say is overwhelming evidence.

CIT published its report on the incident on Tuesday, explaining how it had spotted news of Vadim's death via social media: http://citeam.org/confirmed-death-of-russian-soldier-in-syria

Kostenko's social network account, which contains an image of him in air force uniform, was filled with condolences, as well as with disrespectful abuse from some users.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday told reporters he had no information about "the alleged death of a Russian serviceman in Syria," local news agencies reported.

The ministry of defense did not respond to a list of written questions about Kostenko from Reuters. A foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to comment.

 

WOULD-BE PILOT

A Reuters reporter was told she could not enter the base of the air force unit, in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, where Kostenko served, and where CIT says Sukhoi-25 jets operational in Syria are usually based.

When asked if it was true that a serviceman from the base had died in Syria, an officer leaving the base on Tuesday morning, who declined to give his name, said: "Yes, I heard about that." He refused to provide any more details.

Standing in front of their house in the village of Grechanaya Balka in southern Russia as hens clucked around them, the Kostenkos said their son's battalion commander had broken the bad news personally, telling them that Vadim had hanged himself on Saturday, Oct. 24.

The commander had told them that Vadim had been the only one to die, they said, saying their son's funeral would take place on Wednesday, after they received his body.

Vadim's younger sister, Katya, and his aunt, Anna Musienko, said they also did not believe he had killed himself. They said Vadim was planning to marry his girlfriend, that the two got along really well, and that he introduced her to his family over the summer.

Musienko painted a picture of her nephew as someone who was enthused by serving in the military, saying Vadim had nursed ambitions to train as a pilot. Vadim had told his relatives that he and his friends could not refuse the order to go to Syria when it came, she said.

President Vladimir Putin ordered in May that deaths of Russian soldiers during special operations in peacetime should be classified as a state secret.

Before Tuesday, reports of Russian deaths in Syria had been unconfirmed.

On Oct. 20, a senior pro-Syrian government military source told Reuters at least three Russian citizens fighting with Syrian government forces had been killed by a shell. Russian authorities strongly denied at the time that any of their military personnel had been killed. [ID: nL8N12K4IA]

An unnamed Russian defense ministry source also told the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 23 that a Russian soldier had been killed in an incident related to careless weapons handling. (Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

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