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Russia Says Soldier In Syria Killed Self; Family Has Doubts

Soldier Vadim Kostenko, who Russian officials say committed suicide in Syria.

Soldier Vadim Kostenko, who Russian officials say committed suicide in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said a soldier committed suicide in Syria, in what was the first confirmed death of Russian military personnel since Moscow began large-scale deployment there last month.

The soldier's parents, however, disputed the statement that their son -- Vadim Kostenko, 19 -- killed himself, saying they spoke to him the day of his reported death and he was upbeat and happy.

The death comes as the Russian air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nears its fourth week. After weeks of a stealth build-up, which included heavy artillery, advanced tanks, fighter jets, and military personnel, Russian forces launched air strikes on September 30, using jets and, later, cruise missiles fired from ships in the Caspian Sea.

In an October 27 statement, the Defense Ministry said a soldier serving on contract at the Hmeimim air base, in the western region of Latakia, had committed suicide. The ministry didn’t identify the soldier but said officials had еxamined the serviceman's text messages and concluded that the suicide was related to his relationship with his girlfriend. No further details were given.

The confirmation came a day after a Russian investigative blogging team identified Kostenko’s death using social media posting by friends and relatives.

Ruslan Leviyev, a blogger who earlier tracked Russian units deploying to both Syria and Ukraine, said he contacted a close friend of Kostenko, who told him that Kostenko died in Syria on October 24.

Leviyev’s blogging team also posted screen shots from what appeared to be Kostenko’s page on a popular Russian language social media site called VKontakte, as well as pages from friends who posted condolences, saying he had died in Syria.

The VKontakte posts indicated he served as part of the 960th Aviation Attack Regiment of the 1st Guards Mixed Air Division, based at the Primorsko-Akhtarsk Air Base in the southern region of Krasnodar. Some of the Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-25 fighter jets deployed to Syria are housed at the air base.

Some of the social media postings said other soldiers had been killed, though that information could not be immediately confirmed.

In an interview with Reuters, Aleksandr and Svetlana Kostenko said they did not believe their son would have taken his own life.

"I will never believe this version," Svetlana was quoted as saying. She said she had spoken to Vadim on October 24, the day he died, and he was “cheerful, happy, and he laughed.”

"We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well,” Aleksandr was quoted as saying.

The Kremlin has said its campaign is targeting terrorists. However, the United States and others, who are waging their own air campaign against Islamic State militants, say the Russian strikes are hitting mainly non-Islamic State targets, including moderate rebels, some of whom have been supplied with U.S. weaponry.

U.S. officials have said Moscow’s real aim is to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally.

Last week, Reuters cited Syrian activists as saying three Russians had died when a mortar shell hit their position in Latakia. A Kremlin spokesman later denied that report.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Mike Eckel, Anna Shamanska, and Reuters