A blast in a war-themed cafe in eastern Ukraine on Friday killed the most prominent leader of the Russia-backed separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, rebel officials said.
The death of Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), underlined the dismal prospects for resolving the conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.
Rebel and Russian authorities blamed the Ukrainian government, with some suggesting that the US had a role, while a top Ukrainian security official said the blast was likely the result of the separatists’ factional infighting or an operation by Russian special forces.
Deputy rebel military commander Eduard Basurin said the explosion in the region’s capital, Donetsk, was caused by a bomb planted in the restaurant, which was named Separ in honor of the separatists and decorated with camouflage netting hanging from the eaves.
Seriously injured in the blast was Alexander Timofeev, the revenues and taxes minister for the separatists, the rebels’ DAN news agency reported.
In September last year, Timofeev was injured in another bombing in Donetsk.
The DPR, along with a separatist republic in neighboring Luhansk, has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, the same year Zakharchenko became the DPR’s prime minister.
Fighting fell off significantly after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015 signed an accord in Minsk, Belarus, on ending the violence.
However, most of the agreement’s provisions remain unfulfilled and clashes break out sporadically.
“The assassination of the DPR head makes the Minsk accords devoid of sense,” Russian parliament speaker Alexander Volodin said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Zakharchenko, who was 42, as “a true people’s leader” and promised Donetsk residents that “Russia always will be with you.”
Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the separatists’ parliament, blamed Ukrainian government forces for the explosion, calling it “the latest aggression from the Ukrainian side,” DAN reported.
“It was conducted by special operations forces of Ukraine under control of US special services,” a statement from the rebel command said.
“Instead of fulfilling the Minsk accords and finding ways to resolve the internal conflict, the Kiev war party is implementing a terrorist scenario,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of Zakharchenko’s death.
Ukrainian Security Service Chief of Staff Igor Guskov rejected allegations of any involvement, saying: “We have reason to believe that the death of Zakharchenko may be the result of an internal criminal conflict among the rebels ... but we do not exclude that it was an attempt by Russian special services to remove this odious figure.”
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