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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Ukrainian separatist leader killed in explosion

Apparent assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko could reignite the only war in Western Europe

Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, was killed in Donetsk, Ukraine on Friday. AP
Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, was killed in Donetsk, Ukraine on Friday. AP

The leader of the breakaway Donetsk region of Ukraine was killed in an explosion on Friday, in an apparent assassination that could reignite a conflict that has become a fault-line between Russia and the West.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), died following a detonation at the separatist-themed Separ cafe in central Donetsk, making him the most prominent rebel killed in the four-year war between Kremlin-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Zakharchenko’s bodyguard was also reportedly killed, while the region’s finance minister was seriously injured. Footage shared on social media showed the damaged facade of the cafe and downtown Donetsk cordoned off amid a heavy security presence.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry believes that Kiev is responsible, and President Vladimir Putin has warned that Zakharchenko’s death could further destabilise the region.

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The rebellion in the south-east regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – known collectively as the Donbass – arose after pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych left office in February 2014 amid mass protests. Moscow provided covert military and financial support for the separatists in the Donbass, where Russian speakers predominate.

Zakharchenko, 42, was named prime minister of the DNR in November 2014. The former coalmine electrician and businessman rose rapidly as a rebel leader. He was wounded twice in combat and surviving a car bomb explosion in August 2014.

Unlike the Crimean Peninsula, Russia has not annexed the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Zakharchenko said it was his ambition to build “a new state” but the DNR remains internationally unrecognised.

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine, alongside Germany and France, signed a ceasefire in Minsk, Belarus in 2015 to end the conflict in which more than 10,000 people have died and more than 1.5 million have been displaced by violence.

The Separ cafe in downtown Donetsk, where separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko was killed on Friday. EPA/
The Separ cafe in downtown Donetsk, where separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko was killed on Friday. EPA

But since then the agreement's provisions have remained unfulfilled, with regular clashes in which each side accuses the other of violating the ceasefire.

Assassinations have played an increasing role in this simmering proxy conflict. Former Luhansk leader Igor Plotnitsky was severely injured in 2016 when his car exploded. In the same year, Arsen Pavlov, the separatist leader known as “Motorola”, died in an explosion in the elevator of his apartment building. And in February last year rebel leader “Givi”, Mikhail Tolstykh, was killed by a rocket fired into his office.

Russian officials blame Ukraine for these assassinations but Kiev refutes this. The separatists have also been dogged by internal discord, with several previous leaders being forced to flee the region.

President Putin issued a statement calling Zakharchenko “a true people's leader, a brave and resolute man”. He attributed his death to terrorism but fell short of directly blaming Kiev.

Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Ministry was more direct, with spokeswoman Maria Zakharova saying: “Instead of fulfilling the Minsk accords and finding ways to resolve the internal conflict, the Kiev war party is implementing a terrorist scenario. Having failed to fulfill the promise of peace, apparently they decided to turn to a bloodbath.”

Ukrainian security service chief, Igor Guskov, said Zakharchenko’s death could have been the result of infighting or the work of Russian spies.

“We don’t exclude that this was an effort by Russian intelligence agencies to eliminate a rather odious figure who, according to our information, was getting in the Russians’ way,” Mr Guskov told Ukraine's 112 channel. “According to our information, either the rebels or Russian intelligence agencies were behind this blast.”