Russia confirms death of one of its soldiers in Syria
Russian soldiers walk in front of a Sukhoi Su-34 warplane at Bassel al-Assad air base in Latakia. (Wikimedia/mil.ru)
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Russia has confirmed the death of one of its soldiers stationed in Syria for the first time since deploying troops to the country last month.
TASS, Russia's official state media, quoted a statement by the Ministry of Defense as saying a "man serving under contract at the Hmeimim air base in Syria as a technical specialist took his own life while off duty," adding that an analysis of the soldier's text messages revealed his suicide was motivated by a "rift in his personal relationship with a girl."
The BBC quoted the soldier's family members, who identified him as 19-year-old Vadim Kostenko from the southern Krasnodar region, as saying they refused to believe the Russian government's version of events. Kostenko's parents said they spoke to their son on the phone daily, and he seemed to be in good spirits.
The Wall Street Journal reports an activist group known as Conflict Intelligence Team released a report Tuesday documenting a series of online posts that began last weekend in which Kostenko's friends and relatives mourned his death in Syria.
The defense ministry reportedly responded with its statement the same day, though it did not identify the man's name, age or unit.
Russia sent troops to Syria on Sept. 30 and began conducting airstrikes on behalf of its regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Moscow has insisted it is not employing ground forces in the conflict.
Russia has a history of classifying troop deaths in overseas conflicts, including in Afghanistan, where it did not publicly reveal data on the amount of Russian war dead until 10 years after its occupation began in 1979.
More recently, Moscow has repeatedly denied it sent ground forces to eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have warred with the Kiev government since last year -- despite the bodies of dozens to hundreds of Russian soldiers being sent home to family members who are often given little to no information about where they deployed or how they died.
Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin has characterized any Russian troops killed in Ukraine as volunteers fighting there on their own accord.
Prior to the Tuesday announcement, Russia denied any of its soldiers had died as a result of operations in Syria, but the Wall Street Journal last week quoted a Russian Ministry of Defense official as saying one soldier had been killed due to careless weapons handling.
The same official told the Wall Street Journal a Russian special forces unit had been pulled out of Ukraine and sent to Syria.
By Fred Lambert
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