Ukraine Separatist Leader Killed in Bombing in Donetsk Cafe

(Bloomberg) -- The head of one of Ukraine’s two breakaway republics was killed in a bombing, highlighting the persistent tensions in a conflict that’s now in its fourth year.

Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was the most senior official of the two breakaway regions formed with Russian support after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. He died after a bomb went off in a cafe Friday afternoon in central Donetsk.

“He could have been taken out because of criminal schemes or maybe his Kremlin curators grew tired of him or the Ukrainians may have done it,” said Igor Girkin, a former separatist commander. “He was a problem for everyone.”

The conflict in Ukraine’s easternmost regions, which has killed more than 10,000 people, began after the nation’s Kremlin-backed leader was toppled in 2014. A permanent resolution remains a distant prospect as regular talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France fail to make a breakthrough. The deadline to implement a 2015 peace accord has passed, though that deal ended the worst of the violence. Both sides blame each other for failing to implement the terms of the agreement.

Elevator Bombing

“The vile murder of Alexander Zakharchenko is another sign that those who chose the path of terror, violence and fear don’t want to seek a peaceful, political resolution to the conflict,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement. “I expect that the organizers and perpetrators of this crime will receive their just punishment.”

Ukraine’s State Security Service, or SBU, confirmed the death and said the government in Kiev wasn’t involved, RIA Novosti reported. The death was likely “the result of a war among the ringleaders,” the service was cited as saying.

The Russian-backed separatist forces have suffered numerous assassinations, with the perpetrators usually remaining unclear as speculation swirls about frosty relations between the rebel leaders and their patrons in Moscow. Among the most famous killings was Russian-born Arsen Pavlov, known as Motorola, who died in 2016 after a bomb exploded in the elevator of his apartment building.

There was a failed attempt last year on the life of Zakharchenko, who’d commanded military units that fought Ukrainian forces and later won a controversial election to become head of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Russian officials pointed the finger at Kiev for the attack. Ihor Huskov, chief of staff for Ukraine’s Security Service, said Zakharchenko was killed as part of an internal criminal conflict among militants. “We don’t exclude Russian special services attempting to remove this odious figure,” he told local television.

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