Russian servicemen unload a coffin containing the body of Kostenko from a truck near his family's house in the village of Grechnaya Balka
By Maria Tsvetkova
GRECHANAYA BALKA, Russia (Reuters) - The body of the first Russian serviceman confirmed dead in four weeks of air strikes in Syria was delivered on Tuesday to his parents, who said they were not convinced by the military's account that their 19-year-old son had hanged himself.
In an interview with Reuters at their home in southern Russia before they received the body of their son Vadim, Alexander and Svetlana Kostenko said their son had sounded cheerful over the phone as recently as Saturday, the day he died while working at an air base on the Syrian coast.
"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) 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."
The body was delivered later on Tuesday afternoon in a military truck. Soldiers carried the body into the house inside a wooden box. Shortly afterwards, a woman could be heard loudly sobbing. A little later, a polished wooden coffin was delivered to the house.
After the family saw the body, Vadim's younger sister Katya, 14, told Reuters the corpse appeared undamaged and it was unclear if he was strangled or had hanged himself.
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.
Interfax news agency quoted a source in the defense 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, which did not name the girl, did not respond to written questions from Reuters.
When asked by Reuters via social media whether the couple had fallen out, Tatiana, Vadim's girlfriend, did not respond.
Opinion polls show strong public backing at home for the Kremlin's air campaign in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad; one survey put support above 70 percent.
Kostenko's death was first flagged by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of bloggers who have previously worked to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine, where Russia denies its troops are fighting despite what Western countries say is overwhelming evidence.
Kostenko's social network account, which contains an image of him in air force uniform, was filled with condolences, as well as disrespectful abuse from some users.
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.
Standing in front of their house in the village of Grechanaya Balka in southern Russia as hens clucked around them before the body arrived, the Kostenkos said their son's battalion commander had broken the bad news personally, telling them Vadim had hanged himself on Saturday, Oct. 24.
The funeral would take place on Wednesday.
Vadim's sister and his aunt, Anna Musienko, said they also did not believe he had killed himself. Vadim was planning to marry his girlfriend and that 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 Vadim had nursed ambitions to train as a pilot. Vadim had told his relatives 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.
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)