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A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has been assassinated, and here's what we know, so far

Source: Meduza
Alexander Ermolchenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of eastern Ukraine’s self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), was killed in a cafe bombing in downtown Donetsk on Friday, August 31. The blast injured several people, including DNR Finance Minister Alexander Timofeyev. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, the “Separ” (Separatist) cafe belongs to Zakharchenko’s chief of security. Zakharchenko’s home is just around the corner from the establishment.

The separatist authorities in Donetsk are officially calling Zakharchenko’s assassination a “terrorist attack.” The news agency Interfax reports that local police immediately apprehended several people identified as “Ukrainian saboteurs and others connected to them” who were apparently discovered in a car on Bogdan Khmelnitsky Avenue, not far from the blast site. Sources told the tabloid Life that one of Zakharchenko’s guards is also suspected of involvement in the bombing, but he managed to evade police.

Russian state officials are blaming the Ukrainian government for Zakharchenko’s murder. “There is every reason to suspect that the Kyiv regime is behind his killing. More than once, it’s used similar methods to eliminate dissidents and critics,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. Leonid Kalashnikov, the chairman of the State Duma’s CIS Affairs Committee, attributed the bombing to parties interested in weakening the DNR: “in other words, the current authorities in Kyiv and no one else.”

Officials in Kyiv have denied any role in the bombing. Igor Guskov, a top official at Ukraine’s National Security Service, said his office has reason to believe Zakharchenko’s murder was the result of internal conflict over the redistribution of assets squeezed from struggling businesses, but he also speculated that Russian special forces may have finally decided to “eliminate this rather odious figure, who, according to our information, was hindering the Russians.”

Alexander Zakharchenko was a top official in the DNR since its inception in April 2014: first as the deputy interior minister, then as Donetsk’s military commandant, and then as the chairman of the DNR’s Council of Ministers. He became head of the “republic” in November 2014, when separatists held elections that went unrecognized by the outside world. In Ukraine, Zakharchenko was wanted by police on charges of forming a terrorist organization. Both the United States and European Union imposed sanctions against him.

In recent years, several top DNR officials who took up arms early in the war have met violent ends. In October 2016, an elevator bomb killed Arsen Pavlov (better known by his nom de guerre, “Motorola”), and in February 2017 Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”) died in an explosion while sitting in his office. On both occasions, the DNR blamed “Ukrainian saboteurs” and Kyiv denied any involvement.

Vladimir Putin has expressed his condolences. “Mr. Zakharchenko was a true popular leader, a brave and resolute person, and a patriot of the Donbass,” the president's statement reads. “In a difficult time for his native land, he stood up for its defense and took on great personal responsibility.” Putin says the rebel leader's “vile murder” further demonstrates that “those who choose terror, violence, and intimidation” are standing in the way of a peace settlement in eastern Ukraine. “They are making a dangerous bet on the destabilization of the situation and hoping to force the people of the Donbass to their knees.”

Russia's Federal Investigative Committee says it's opened a criminal case, treating the bombing as an act of international terrorism. Officially, at least, Zakharchenko is not a Russian citizen and Moscow regards Donetsk to be part of Ukraine.

Text by Georgy Levchenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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