DONETSK, Ukraine: Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels announced three days of mourning on Monday after notorious rebel commander Arseny Pavlov, known as “Motorola”, was killed in a lift bombing.
The 33-year-old Russian died late on Sunday when a homemade device exploded in the lift at the entrance to his block of flats in the de facto rebel capital Donetsk, separatist authorities said.
It was the latest in a string of assassinations of insurgent commanders, with rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko blaming it on Kiev, describing it as a declaration of “war” by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
But other separatists told AFP the bombing may have been part of an internal power struggle among the rebels, who Kiev and the West say are directed by Russia.
“Either it’s an operation staged by the Ukrainian services or it was one of us,” said a fighter in the Sparta battalion which had been led by Pavlov.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Monday that Pavlov’s death meant he had escaped “inevitable punishment in the form of life imprisonment”.
“He simply got lucky,” Lysenko said.
An army veteran from Russia’s Komi region, Pavlov — who fought in the second Chechen war — joined the fighting that broke out in east Ukraine in April 2014 as a volunteer, rising to prominence after appearing on Russian TV broadcasts.
In a 2015 interview, he famously boasted of having shot 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war, prompting calls for an investigation by Amnesty International.
And in June this year, he reportedly survived another assassination attempt.
His death was widely reported by Russian state media, which paid glowing tribute to him.
On Monday morning, the crime scene was ringed by armed rebel fighters who refused to let reporters through, saying investigators were at work. Several pensioners came to lay flowers outside the block of flats.
Three people who witnessed the explosion told AFP Pavlov’s bodyguard was also killed, although this has not been confirmed by rebel officials.
Fighting in east Ukraine — which has claimed nearly 10,000 lives — has dragged on despite a peace plan brokered by Germany and France, which has run around amid acrimony between Russia and Ukraine.
Kiev on Monday said one soldier was killed and seven injured in the latest clashes.
Pavlov is the latest of rebel leader to be killed in the war-torn region controlled by heavily-armed militias.
Earlier attacks have seen pro-Russian warlords blown up by car bombs and anti-tank missiles in spectacular mob-style hits that the rebel leadership blamed on Kiev but which many put down to separatist power struggles.