Russian bombs target positions, vehicles and warehouses that Moscow believes belong to ISIL, defence minister says.
The body of the first Russian serviceman to be killed in Syria has been delivered to his parents who are not convinced by the military’s account that their 19-year-old son hanged himself.
Alexander and Svetlana Kostenko told the Reuters news agency at their home in the village of Grechanaya Balka, in southern Russia, before receiving the body of their son Vadim Kostenko on Tuesday, that they were suspicious about the circumstances of his death.
“I will never believe this version [suicide],” said Svetlana, who was wearing a black head scarf.
“We spoke every day by phone for half-an-hour. [On Saturday, the day of his death] he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed,” she said.
Alexander, Kostenko’s father, said: “We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well.”
After the family saw the body on Tuesday, Kostenko‘s younger sister, Katya, 14, told Reuters the corpse had marks on his neck and otherwise appeared undamaged.
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 September 14, two weeks before the Kremlin’s air campaign began, his father said.
He said they had only discovered that Kostenko was in Syria when he was already there.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a source in the defence ministry’s press service confirming the death.
“A contract serviceman stationed at the Hmeimim airbase [in Latakia] as a technician committed suicide while he was resting after duty,” the source told Interfax.
“According to preliminary information, in particular, the analysis of text messages in his phone, the reason for the death of the contract serviceman is problems in his personal relationship with a girl,” the source said.
The ministry did not respond to written questions from Reuters.
Kostenko’s sister and his aunt, Anna Musienko, also said they did not believe he had killed himself. Kostenko was planning to marry his girlfriend and the two got along well, they said.
Musienko painted a picture of her nephew as someone who was enthused by serving in the military, saying Kostenko had nursed ambitions to train as a pilot.
Kostenko had told his relatives that he and his friends could not refuse the order to go to Syria when it came, she said.
A Russian media report published just four days before Kostenko’s departure for Syria claimed that some Russian military contractors were being sent to the Middle Eastern country without their consent.
The Gazeta.ru report said that 20 troops, including officers and contracted soldiers, were selected from a military unit of Russia’s eastern military district command and sent on a mission without being told about the final destination.
According to the contractors cited in the report, the commander only told them at the beginning that they might be sent to a “hot country”.
On September 16, they were informally told by a representative of a military chief about the secretly planned deployment to Latakia, prompting protests from “almost everyone”.
“Some two or three soldiers, due to their young age and youth and credulity, were thinking the commanders would not dare send us to Syria, and we will be deployed in Crimea or Ossetia instead,” a contractor was quoted as saying.
“We don’t want to go to Syria; we don’t want to die there,” the publication quoted one of the lieutenants as saying.
The contractors sought to hand in their resignation on the same day, but the documents were rejected.
Aleksey Tonevitskiy, deputy military prosecutor of Novorossiysk, where the troops were taken while waiting for the departure to the final destination, told Gazeta.ru that the whole story was “a nonsense”.
“It was either a provocation aiming to lower the image of the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community by suggesting that our military servicemen are going to the territory of a foreign country to fight,” he said.
“If they are afraid of something, let them please officially say so, in writing, who and what kind of authoritative people are threatening them. We will look into it, no problem.”
The online report said the particular group was supposed to be deployed to Syria on September 17, but it was postponed due to the scandal surrounding the protesting soldiers.