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Bulgarian officials identify body of prominent Ukrainian pilot missing since June

Smoke rises above 400 new graves in the town of Severodonetsk, where the Ukraine-Russia war continues. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Bulgarian government official revealed on November 7 that remains found in Bulgaria in September belonged to a prominent Ukrainian military pilot who had been missing for months, and the body has been returned to Ukraine for burial.

The remains of Ukrainian Air Force Colonel Mykhaylo Matyushenko, 61, were identified using DNA after the body was found in a lake after several months in the water, according to Hristo Ilchev, head of the search division of the regional directorate of the Internal Affairs Ministry.

Matyushenko, who went by the call name Grandfather and was head of the Ghost of Kyiv brigade, disappeared from the skies over Snake Island in the Black Sea in June, according to the Ukrainian military.

His fate had been unknown until Bulgarian authorities were able to positively identify the body after it was found attached to a parachute in the lake near the Bulgarian Black Sea coastal port of Tsarevo.

Officials in the Bulgarian Internal Affairs Ministry suspected the body was that of a Ukrainian Air Force pilot and contacted representatives of the Ukrainian Embassy and the Ukrainian Army, both of which provided additional data to reveal the identity of the pilot.

Ilchev said Matyushenko’s military aircraft, an SU-124, was shot down in the area of Snake Island near Odesa. Matyushenko and the other pilot of the aircraft ejected.

“The pilot we found had his limbs severed from a faulty catapult. He most likely died of blood loss, as no other signs of injury were found on the body,” Ilchev said.

Ilchev made the comments on November 7 during a ceremony to present the police chief of Tsarevo with an award for his handling of the case.

No information is available about the fate of the other pilot.

Matyushenko had experience as a fighter jet pilot and civil aviation pilot. Before the war he was in management at one of Ukraine’s commercial airlines.

He was buried in his hometown, Bucha, on October 3, according to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

The mayor of Bucha, Anatoly Feroryuk, said Matyushenko had volunteered to reinforce his colleagues on the southern and eastern fronts.

Russian forces withdrew from Snake Island on June 30 after coming under heavy bombardment from Ukrainian artillery. Ukrainian troops claimed to have raised their flag on the strategic Black Sea outpost a few days later.

“For Matyushenko, this was the last mission. They couldn’t find him for a long time,” Feroryuk said.

The headquarters of the Ukrainian Air Force announced in April that the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv was created by the Ukrainians. The military made it the collective name of the members of the 40th Air Force Tactical Brigade, which defends Kyiv and “appears suddenly in places where no one expects it.”