Tensions down after 'coup' in Ukraine's separatist region

Lugansk (Ukraine) (AFP) –


Tensions appeared to abate Thursday in Lugansk, a stronghold of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, two days after infighting erupted in the war-scarred region, culminating in accusations of a coup attempt.

The so-called Lugansk People's Republic, one of two regions controlled by the rebels, has for years been blighted by leadership squabbles and several senior leaders have been assassinated.

The current conflict escalated on Tuesday, when hundreds of armed men in military fatigues without insignia blocked access to government buildings in what one of the soldiers described as military drills ordered by the Lugansk interior ministry.

Patrols began after self-proclaimed Lugansk leader Igor Plotnitsky earlier this week sacked his interior minister, Igor Kornet, in an apparent spike in infighting between rebel factions.

Plotnitsky then accused Kornet of masterminding a coup attempt, which the sacked minister denied. But Kornet has so far refused to step down.

On Thursday, the number of soldiers and military trucks in the city centre had sharply decreased, as formerly blocked government buildings were again accessible.

Military vehicles were moved from the streets and parked in backyards, AFP journalists saw.

"This is not a coup, we simply need to lead people on the right track," one of the armed, pro-Kornet men who identified himself as "Varyag" told AFP.

Kornet's men on Wednesday had arrested a top local prosecutor loyal to Plotnitsky, along with several of his deputies.

"We just cleaned up the streets because some leaders are becoming too capricious and think they control the world," Varyag said.

The headquarters of the local television, headed by a relative of Plotnitsky, remained surrounded by armed men, while Plotnitsky's official website reported it had been subject to "repeated cyberattacks".

Plotnitsky's whereabouts were unknown Thursday, but some Russian media reported he had left Lugansk and fled to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was aware of the situation, but declined further comment.

A conflict between Russia-backed fighters and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014, when pro-Russian forces declared parts of eastern Ukraine independent following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of plotting and backing the insurgency, which Moscow denies.