Ukraine's air force appeared to clarify whether or not a mythical fighter pilot known as the Ghost of Kyiv — who is claimed to have shot down dozens of Russian jet fighters in the continuing war — actually exists.
Stories of the exploits of a heroic Ukrainian 'Top Gun' emerged in the hours after the Russian invasion on February 24. Local reports said he had been involved in more than 40 engagements in which he successfully targeted Russian aircraft — and praised his heroism.
But in recent days, reports said that the pilot may have been killed in action, with speculation that the "ghost" was 29-year-old Major, Stepan Tarabalk, who lost his life to enemy action on March 13.
On Sunday, Ukraine's military denied that Tarabalk was the Ghost of Kyiv, but said that he was a skilled fighter pilot who had shot down many Russian aircraft.
Paying his last respects to Tarabalk, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat appeared to suggest the Ghost of Kyiv was a symbol of Ukrainian courage defending the country's skies against a much larger Russian air force.
In statements carried by the British newspaper The Times, Mr Ignat clarified that he became an evocative symbol for Ukrainians in the war to boost the morale of fellow soldiers.
He said his name has been used to represent all pilots operating in the airspace around the Ukrainian capital.
“The Ghost of Kyiv is alive and embodies a collective image of the highly qualified pilots of the tactical aviation brigade successfully defending Kyiv and the surrounding region,” he said.
Mr Ignat said that the father-of-one Tarabalk was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero, the highest military honour in the Ukrainian armed forces.
“Stepan was a brave and talented pilot, sorely missed by his family and fellow soldiers.”
Tarabalka’s helmet and goggles are expected to go on sale at auction in London, according to The Times.
The Ghost of Kyiv legend emerged after the Ukrainian government released an artist's impression of the fighter pilot, in the first hours of the Russian onslaught on February 24. Ukraine's military has since claimed Russian combat losses, including 189 jet fighters and bombers, but some analysts dispute the accuracy of these claims.
But conflict monitors say that even if Ukraine's claims of destroying vast amounts of Russian equipment are exaggerated, Russia has lost a considerable amount of its combat power, 67 days into the war.
In the wider conflict, more than 5.4 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia invaded two months ago, with tens of thousands joining their ranks every day, the United Nations says.
Beyond the refugees, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates more than 7.7 million people have been displaced within Ukraine. This means that more than 13 million people overall have been uprooted by the conflict.