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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Hands Over Remains to Italy

MTItalian soldiers loading the remains of their fallen World War II comrades onto a cargo plane on Wednesday for the trip home.
CHKALOVSKY AIRFIELD, Moscow Region -- Every October for the last 11 years, a memorial ceremony has been held at the quiet Chkalovsky military airfield just east of Moscow for Italian soldiers and prisoners of war who died on Russian soil during World War II.

This year's ceremony, held Wednesday afternoon, was also the occasion for the Russian military authorities to hand over to Italian embassy officials the remains of 586 Italian soldiers buried on Russian territory.

To the sounds of a Russian military band's funeral march, 48 rough wooden coffins containing the soldiers' remains were put aboard a C-130 Italian military transport airplane for the flight home, after a brief burial service conducted by an Italian Catholic priest.

Of the remains, only 11 have been identified.

"This ceremony is a moment of remembrance for an unjust war, and of the tragedy of the young people who died," said a somber-faced Gianfranco Facco Bonetti, the Italian ambassador to Russia.

The ceremony is an annual tradition that has been taking place since October 1992, after Italy signed an agreement with the Soviet Union for the repatriation of the bodies of its fallen soldiers.

"At first, the Soviet authorities were reluctant to admit where the soldiers were buried," Facco Bonetti said. But later Italy renewed its agreement with the Russian government, and with the help of the Russian Military Memorials Association, Italy was given information on the whereabouts of some of the 65,000 graves of its soldiers and prisoners of war.

Every summer experts from the association, with the help of the Italian Defense Ministry, work to exhume the remains of the soldiers, said Vasily Tolochko, the association's deputy director.

Over the 11 years, in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus the remains of 8,597 soldiers have been repatriated, with 2,802 bodies identified.

Many soldiers were identified thanks to messages, IDs and documents put in bottles next to the bodies by Italian army chaplains, Tolochko said.

Workers said they found 60 medals near the bodies repatriated Wednesday. "Unfortunately we could read the names on only 11 of them," Tolochko said.

Facco Bonetti said the local population had been very helpful in giving information on where the Italian soldiers were buried.

"The other day, for example, I received a touching letter from a woman whose mother had just died," Facco Bonetti said. "Shortly before her death, she told her daughter, 'You must write the Italian authorities, saying where that Italian I met in 1944 is buried.'"

Less than half of the 230,000 soldiers sent to Russia came back home, with the others dying during the war or in Soviet prison camps.