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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

4 Conscripts Found Hanged in Forest

Four conscripts were found hanged in a forest in the Saratov region on Wednesday, only days before they were to complete their service, the Air Force said.

The conscripts voluntarily left their helicopter-training unit at the Syzran Military Aviation College in the city of Saratov on Tuesday evening, and when they failed to return, a group of servicemen was dispatched to search for them, Air Force spokesman Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky said.

The searchers found the four at about 8 a.m. Wednesday, hanging from trees in a forest 20 kilometers from Saratov, he said.

Drobyshevsky said prosecutors had questioned the four the previous day over a stolen car that one of the conscripts was suspected of stealing.

It was unclear whether the deaths were connected to the investigation.

Military prosecutors said they believed that the conscripts were driven to suicide or that they were killed and then hanged in trees to make their deaths look like a multiple suicide, Interfax reported.

If found to be suicide, the case would be unprecedented in the armed forces. Cases of conscripts committing suicide or dying violently after suffering hazing at the hands of older servicemen and officers are widespread, but multiple suicides are unheard of. Also, recent draftees are more prone to hazing and suicide than conscripts wrapping up their two-year terms.

"To say that they committed suicide would be the easiest and the most convenient thing for prosecutors to do. However, that looks doubtful less than a month before the end of their service," Veronika Marchenko, head of the Mothers' Rights Foundation, which assists parents of killed servicemen.

Even if the conscripts were upset after being questioned, they would be more likely to desert than to commit suicide, she said.

Marchenko said her group has registered at least two violent deaths in the Saratov helicopter-training unit in the past 15 years, including a 2003 incident in which a senior serviceman shot dead a conscript.

Drobyshevsky identified the four dead conscripts as Georgy Pryadkin from Khakassia, Alexei Sadomov from Novosibirsk, Vyacheslav Yeliseyev from the Rostov region, and Denis Sandalov from the Kirov region.

He said the military's General Staff had sent a commission from Moscow to conduct an independent investigation into the deaths.

A duty officer with the Saratov garrison prosecutor's office said no one was available for comment because "all military prosecutors in the Volga-Urals Military District, including chief prosecutor Vladimir Melnik, who is based in Yekaterinburg," had left to investigate the deaths.