GRECHANAYA BALKA, Russia (Reuters) - The family of the first Russian soldier confirmed dead in Syria buried their son in a village graveyard on Wednesday, with his father saying there were no signs on the body to support the official account he had hanged himself.
Russian defense officials say Vadim Kostenko, 19, hanged himself at a base on the Syrian coast on Saturday because of problems in his personal life. His body was handed over to his parents on Tuesday, making him the first confirmed military fatality of Russia’s 4-week-old bombing campaign.
“There were no marks on his body to suggest that he had hanged himself,” Vadim’s father, Alexander, told Reuters after his son’s funeral in southern Russia. “Let’s see what the prosecutor says.”
The circumstances of the air force technician’s death have aroused suspicion in Russia, where Kremlin critics accuse the authorities of hiding the truth of military casualties in other conflicts, especially in Ukraine where Moscow denies its forces have fought despite what the West says is overwhelming evidence.
Vadim’s parents, Alexander and Svetlana, say their son had sounded cheerful over the phone when they spoke to him the day he died, which led them to doubt that he hanged himself.
Four soldiers carried the coffin from the parents house on Wednesday to a small van, followed by a soldier carrying the blue, white and red Russian flag with a black ribbon attached.
His mother, sobbing and wearing a black head scarf, walked with difficulty. She referred to her dead son as her “little one” before climbing into the van and stroking his face on the journey to the graveyard.
The coffin was taken to the village cemetery, where the lid was removed before the burial, revealing the body in a dark blue air force uniform. The collar was turned up, concealing his neck, but a bruise was visible on his nose. Soldiers fired three shots into the air before the casket was closed.
Neighbors said a local priest had visited the family home on Wednesday morning, but had refused to carry out a blessing because he had said suicide was a sin.
Novaya Gazeta newspaper quoted an unidentified uncle as saying Kostenko’s body bore wounds inconsistent with hanging.
“He had a broken jaw and the back of his head was bashed in. And his neck was broken,” the uncle was quoted as saying. He also said his nephew’s nose was broken.
The office of Russia’s main military prosecutor said on Wednesday it was still looking into Kostenko’s death, but its initial findings were that he had hanged himself. The official reason for his death was asphyxiation.
Vadim’s father played down a press report that he wanted a repeat autopsy, saying the family would first wait for the results of an official investigation. Vadim’s grandmother said she opposed a second autopsy: “Nobody will disturb him”.
Kostenko flew to Syria on Sept. 14, two weeks before the Kremlin launched its air campaign to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Russia says it is targeting militants from the Islamic State group although most of its strikes have hit areas held by other opponents of Assad.
One military officer who agreed to speak about the circumstances of Kostenko’s death on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the body had been found by fellow soldiers at his base in Syria and that it was obvious he had ended his own life. He said that Vadim’s phone had 10 unreturned calls on it, which he said were probably to his girlfriend.
Another officer said conditions at the Syrian base were comfortable.
Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff