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Army wives urge Russia to come clean on soldiers in Ukraine

Several dozen women gathered Thursday outside a military base in central Russia to demand Moscow come clean about where their husbands are after reports of secret funerals for soldiers covertly sent to fight in Ukraine.

The young women — mostly in their 20s, a few with small children — huddled outside a base that houses paratroopers in Kostroma.

Some 350 soldiers from the city north of Moscow were sent on military drills to the border with Ukraine and then went incommunicado, said one of the women, 26-year-old Valeria Sokolova.

Several of the soldiers have apparently been returned in pine boxes, she said, adding that about 15 wounded soldiers were also flown back earlier this week.

“Cargo-200 arrived yesterday,” Sokolova said, citing military officials and using the Russian military term for body bags. She said her husband’s name was not on the list of the dead or wounded.

Around 50 soldiers have also reportedly been sent from the nearby town of Ivanovo.

– ‘I’ll come back’ –

Military commanders, she said, 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.

Standing outside the drab base next to banners extolling the “beloved troops of the motherland”, she and the other young women wanted to know the whereabouts of their husbands but were instead told to go home.

Sokolova said local officials told them they could not hold a formal demonstration or brandish banners outside the base.

Sokolova said she last heard from her husband on Saturday when he told her that he and his comrades had received their marching orders.

“Some will ride in tanks and I will be in a Kamaz (truck),” her 25-year-old husband told her without specifying where they were being sent.

She said it was an unusually warm goodbye.

“He said ‘I’ll come back, I love you,'” Sokolova said, adding the soldiers had been told to take winter clothes with them.

Another woman said her son, Yegor Pochtoyev, was among those detained by Ukrainian authorities.

“He is now in a detention centre in Kiev,” his mother Olga Garina told AFP by phone from Kostroma. She said he was taking part in drills but then ended up in Ukraine.

At another gate outside the base a second group of women told a man in civilian clothes they were worried sick.

– ‘Honest Russian warriors’ –

He told them the soldiers were taking part in military drills.

“Your children will be proud of their fathers,” said the man who identified himself as Albert Akhmerov. They are honest Russian warriors.”

Akhmerov refused to speak to AFP and a soldier on duty ordered reporters to leave.

The majority of the women refused to speak to reporters.

“We would like to see how you’d behave if your husbands were sent there,” one aggressive woman shouted at an AFP team.

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.

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’s Rain TV station reported this week.

Officials would only say that the reports of the funerals were being looked into and deny Russian troops are deployed in Ukraine.

The case echoes official denials earlier this year that Russia had sent paramilitary forces into Crimea, and the Soviet Union’s initial reluctance to acknowledge going to war in Afghanistan in 1979.

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.

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.