Moscow stifles dissent as soldiers return in coffins

Moscow stifles dissent as soldiers return in coffins

MOSCOW - Late last month Yelena Tumanova was handed the body of her son in a coffin at her home in Russia's Western Volga region. Anton Tumanov was 20 and a soldier serving in the Russian army in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

The documents Yelena Tumanova was given with the body raised more questions than they answered - questions about how her son died and about the Russian government's denials that its troops are in Ukraine. The records do not show Anton Tumanov's place of death, said human rights activists who spoke to his mother after she got in touch with them.

"Medical documents said there were shrapnel wounds, that is he died from a loss of blood, but how it happened and where were not indicated," said Sergei Krivenko, who heads a commission on military affairs on Russia's presidential human rights council.

Yelena Tumanova could not be reached for comment and Reuters was unable to review the documents. But more than 10 soldiers in her dead son's unit told Krivenko and Ella Polyakova, another member of the presidential human rights council, that Anton Tumanov died in an Aug. 13 battle near the Ukrainian town of Snizhnye.

The battle, the soldiers said, killed more than 100 Russian soldiers serving in the 18th motorised rifle brigade of military unit 27777, which is based outside the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Rolan, 23, a fellow soldier who served with Tumanov, told Reuters that his comrade died on the operating table after he was hit by shrapnel from rockets. Rolan said he was steps away in an armoured personnel carrier when the rockets struck. He said two in his group died, including another soldier, named Robert.

"I was inside an APC, hatches were open, and as a result I was lightly stunned and shell-shocked," said Rolan.

"Robert and Anton were outside two or three steps away and they simply did not manage to hide. Robert died right there. We gave first aid to Anton, he was already on the operating table when he died," said Rolan, now at home in Russia's Krasnodar region where he is recovering from an injury.

Human rights workers and military workers say some 15 other Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, with hundreds more now in hospital.

The fact that Russian soldiers have died in a war in which they officially have no involvement is a problem in Russia. Chatter about young soldiers returning home in coffins has begun to spread over the past few weeks. Though still limited, such talk has powerful echoes of earlier Russian wars such as Chechnya and Afghanistan.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said this week that Russia had moved most of its forces back across the border into Russian territory after a ceasefire between Kiev and the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. But a NATO military officer said on Thursday that Russia still had 1,000 troops in the country.

The idea of an outright invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian troops is highly unpopular in Russia. A survey by pro-Kremlin pollster Fund of Social Opinions said 57 per cent of Russians support the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, but only 5 per cent support an invasion of Ukrainian territory.

Russian authorities have worked to systematically silence rights workers' complaints over soldiers' deaths, intimidating those who question the Kremlin's denials that its soldiers are in Ukraine.

Krivenko and Polyakova, who is also the head of an organisation representing soldiers' mothers in St. Petersburg, filed a petition on Aug. 25 asking Russian investigators for an explanation for the deaths at Snizhnye.

So far they have heard nothing. But soon after the petition was filed to the Investigative Committee, a law enforcement body that answers only to President Vladimir Putin, Polyakova was told her organisation, which has existed since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, had been branded a 'foreign agent.'

The term, brought in by Putin in 2012 to set apart non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding and engage in political activities, carries no real punitive measures but is often used to discredit critics of the Kremlin.

Polyakova says she has been at odds with the authorities over her stance toward Russia's annexation of Crimea. She believes authorities gave her the 'foreign agent' tag because of her petition and an Aug. 28 interview with Reuters in which she first accused Moscow of covering up the deaths of Russian soldiers.

"It's all linked. This was just the last drop, so to speak," she said.

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