Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko killed in explosion in Ukraine

Alexander Zakharchenko

Alexander Zakharchenko

A bomb killed the most prominent pro-Russian rebel leader in the breakaway region of eastern Ukraine on Friday, Russian and Ukrainian officials said, heightening the tension in the region's simmering proxy war.

A restaurant close to the residence of Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-proclamed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), was rocked by an explosion earlier on Friday.

The rebel and Russian news reports say the separatist "finance minister" Alexander Timofeyev was wounded in the blast at the Separ cafe.

Zakharchenko "received injuries incompatible with life as a result of an explosion in the centre of Donetsk", the separatist administration said in a statement. "The republic's leader suffered a fatal wound", a senior Donetsk rebel, Vladislav Berdichevsky, told Interfax news agency.

The killing of Zakharchenko, who had led the Donetsk separatists since 2014, throws the four-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine into a fresh phase of uncertainty.

More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict.

Fighting fell off significantly after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015 signed an accord in Minsk, Belarus on ending the conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin called the killing a "dastardly" crime aimed at destabilizing a fragile regional peace, but he did not accuse Kiev of being behind it.

Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the separatists' parliament, blamed Ukrainian forces for the explosion, calling it "the latest aggression from the Ukrainian side", according to DAN. A statement from the rebel command said "it was conducted by special operations forces of Ukraine under control of USA special services".

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova says the "Kyiv regime" is probably to blame. "Having failed to fulfil the promise of peace, apparently they made a decision to turn to a bloodbath".

Ukrainian security service (SBU) however blamed the killing on rival separatists or Moscow.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko was the head of the so-called DNR since November 4, 2014, he survived several assassination attempts. It never was established if pro-Kyiv attackers were responsible or if the violence resulted from disputes within the rebel ranks or Moscow's possible desire to eliminate individuals it found inconvenient. A bombing killed prominent rebel Arsen Pavlov, known as Motorola, in 2016 and a rocket fired into his office killed separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh, known as Givi, in 2017.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russian Federation of funnelling troops and arms across the border. The death of the DNR leader could have a particularly negative impact on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian Senate's International Affairs Committee, said.

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