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A burial, but no closure for Russian soldier's family

MOSCOW (Reuters) - In October, the Russian military delivered a headless corpse to relatives of Pavel Zhilin. Officials said Zhilin, a paratrooper from the 331st airborne regiment of the 98th division, had been killed during a training exercise in Russia.

A Russian soldier stands at attention as troops march past during a general rehearsal for a Victory Day parade at Moscow's Red Square, in this May 6, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov/Files

The family was skeptical about the military’s account. They first became suspicious last summer, when they saw on television paratroopers from Zhilin’s company who had been captured by Ukrainians. Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the soldiers lost their way and entered Ukraine by accident.

But when the family opened the coffin and saw burned and mutilated remains, they were incredulous, said the soldier’s godmother. Zhilin’s unit was based in Kostroma 300 km (190 miles) north-east of Moscow. She said the family didn’t believe either the military’s story, or that the corpse was the body of Zhilin.

“I was there,” said godmother Elena Denisova. “It wasn’t him. I’m 100 percent sure. It’s not his body. Not his.”

The corpse’s feet were three shoe sizes too small, she said. Zhilin’s parents declined to comment.

The military insisted that the headless body was the 22-year-old paratrooper, that he had died in Rostov province and that he had not been in Ukraine, family members said. They said the military death certificate says he was killed by an exploding shell in Rostov.

“That’s not true,” Denisova said.

Families of Russians killed in Ukraine are usually awarded compensation of up to 5 million rubles ($90,000), according to human rights workers. Most families desperately need the money. According to Denisova, Zhilin’s family were asked by the military to fill in forms to claim compensation, but refused to do so.

“We tried to explain that if it wasn’t our boy, who would you send us the money for?” said Denisova. “We aren’t rich people. But we don’t want to trade our child.”

In November, the military buried the headless body in part of a graveyard in Kostroma reserved for war heroes. Denisova said the body was buried without the permission of relatives, who still reject the military’s account.

The graveyard attendant, Lyudmila Kurochkina, said of the young soldiers laid to rest there: “Those boys were brought from Ukraine. Zhilin doesn’t have a name (on his grave) because the military buried him, not his parents. His parents don’t want to believe their child is there.”

Alexei Besfamilny, the officer in charge of the burial, declined to say how the young man had died. “The subject is closed,” he said. “It’s classified.”

Edited by Richard Woods and Sara Ledwith