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Russian Ministry: First Confirmed Fatality in Syria a Suicide

Russian servicemen unload a coffin containing the body of Vadim Kostenko, a member of the Russian air force's support staff in Syria, from a truck near his family's house in Grechanaya Balka, Russia, Oct. 27, 2015.

The body of the first Russian serviceman confirmed dead in four weeks of airstrikes in Syria was delivered Tuesday to his parents’ home in southern Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that Vadim Kostenko, 19, died Saturday at Russia’s airbase near Latakia on the Syrian Coast, but how is a matter of dispute. The ministry said Kostenko took his own life; his family said it was unlikely that he'd do that.

"A contract serviceman stationed at the Hmeimim airbase [in Latakia] as a technician committed suicide while he was resting after duty," the Russian news agency Interfax said, quoting a source in the Defense Ministry's press service.

The ministerial source said that according to a preliminary investigation, "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."

But Alexander Kostenko, Vadim's father, told that Reuters news agency he didn't believe that. "We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well," he said.

Vadim’s parents said they had talked to him on Saturday, the day of his death, and that he'd sounded cheerful.

"I will never believe this version [suicide]," Reuters quoted Vadim’s mother, Svetlana Kostenko, as saying. "We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. [On Saturday] he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed."

The death was first flagged by the nonprofit Conflict Intelligence Team, which studies social networks for evidence of Russian military activity in Syria and Ukraine. The group found posts on a Russian social network mourning the death of Kostenko. The group said there had been many reports of Russian military fatalities, but this was the first time one could be confirmed.

The Russians are secretive about personnel killed in military operations. In May, President Vladimir Putin declared that all military deaths would be classified as state secrets — not just during times of war, which has been the case for years, but also during periods of peace.

By contrast, when the U.S. suffered its first fatality in the campaign against Islamic State last week, the Pentagon released the soldier’s name and the circumstances of his death the next day. Special Operations Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was killed during a hostage rescue operation to free Iraqi prisoners last Thursday.

Kostenko had been drafted into military service. After his term of service ended in June, he signed on as a contractor and went to Syria about two weeks before the Russian bombing campaign began.

He was expected to be buried Wednesday in his home village of Grechanaya Balka.