Mothers pressure Russia to come clean on soldiers in Ukraine
Wives and mothers of Russian soldiers were set to demonstrate Thursday after reports of secret military funerals ratcheted up pressure on Moscow to come clean about its role in the Ukraine conflict.
The women said paratroopers from a base in Kostroma, north of Moscow, were sent on military drills and then went incommunicado, only for some of their husbands and sons to return in pine boxes.
"Cargo-200 arrived in Kostroma yesterday," Valeria Sokolova, a wife of one of the paratroopers, told AFP, using the Russian military term for body bags.
She said military commanders had refused to confirm that their loved ones had been sent to fight in Ukraine.
"There would only tell us that they are not in Russia," Sokolova said.
The case echoes official denials earlier this year that Russia had sent paramilitary forces into Crimea, and the Soviet Union's reluctance to acknowledge it was at war in Afghanistan in 1979.
Washington and Kiev on Thursday accused Moscow of direct involvement in the deadly conflict raging in the east of Ukraine, saying Russian troops were on the ground.
Russian independent media have widely reported on the funerals of two paratroopers that were held in secret in northwestern Russia, citing mourners as saying they were killed in Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, would only say that the reports were being looked into.
However questions about Russian involvement in Ukraine came to a head when Moscow confirmed this week that nearly a dozen of its soldiers had strayed into the country "accidentally" and been captured.
The leader of the Donetsk rebels, Alexander Zakharchenko, said Wednesday that many Russian troops were fighting alongside his insurgents, but that they had all chosen to spend their holidays in the region.
Moscow's Rain TV station reported this week that a regional branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a rights group that campaigns against abuses in the armed forces, has drawn up a list of 400 soldiers believed to have been injured or killed in Ukraine.
Moscow initially denied it had sent paramilitary forces into Crimea in March this year, only to admit it later and annex the territory from Ukraine following a hastily-arranged referendum.
© 2014 AFP