East Ukraine separatist leader killed in blast

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) –


The main separatist leader in eastern Ukraine was killed in a bomb blast in the centre of rebel hub Donetsk on Friday, his spokeswoman said, the most prominent rebel victim in the four-year conflict.

"The head of the DNR (Donetsk People's Republic), Alexander Zakharchenko, has died as the result of a terrorist attack today," Zakharchenko's spokeswoman Alena Volynets told AFP.

The official website of the DNR said an explosion went off in the "Separ" cafe at 1430 GMT, which it said injured three others.

An AFP journalist at the scene said police had cordoned off the block where the blast occurred.

Businessman-turned-warlord Zakharchenko, who commanded rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces in the mining and industrial town of Donetsk, was elected first president of the unrecognised republic in 2014.

He said at the time his ambition was to build "a new state".

Zakharchenko, who died aged 42, is the most prominent victim in a series of killings of separatist politicians and commanders since the conflict began in 2014..

Among other leading figures who have been killed outside the battlefield are commanders Mikhail Tolstykh, Alexei Mozgovoy, Alexander Bednov and Arsen Pavlov.

Last year, the chief of police of the so-called Lugansk People's Republic Oleg Anashchenko was killed when his car blew up in Lugansk.

Moscow and the rebel regions blame the murders on Kiev, while counters that the crimes are tied to internal strife and Russia's desire to control the territory.

DNR official Denis Pushilin said Kiev was behind Zakharchenko's death, in comments carried by the separatist news agency.

"This is a further aggression from the Ukraine side... Donetsk will avenge this crime," he said.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman also said that it is likely that "the Kiev regime is behind the murder," Russian news agencies reported.

Ukrainian security service (SBU) however blamed the killing on rival separatists or Moscow. "Zakharchenko's death could be the result of internal conflicts among the fighters," SBU official Igor Guskov told Ukraine's 112 channel.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the rebel insurgency broke out in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in April 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border.

Moscow has denied the allegations despite evidence it has been involved in the fighting and gives open political support to the rebels.