The body of an Italian photographer was being flown to Kiev on Sunday after he became the first journalist to die covering the violent pro-Russian insurgency gripping the east of Ukraine.
Italian media identified the victim as 30-year-old Andrea Rocchelli - founder of the Cesura photo agency and contributor to leading media organisations such as US magazine Newsweek and the French daily Le Monde.
The Italian foreign ministry said the exact circumstances of his death remained unclear because the situation on the ground was “difficult to verify” even for the Ukrainian authorities.
A ministry spokeswoman said his body had been taken to a hospital close to the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk for positive identification before being flown to the Ukrainian capital.
“The family of the young reporter has been in contact in the last few hours with the ministry and the embassy in Kiev, which will assist with his body in the afternoon when it arrives in the Ukraine capital,” said the ministry.
French photographer William Roguelon of the Wostok Press agency said from the Slavyansk hospital on Saturday that he and the Italian reporter were caught in crossfire after approaching the city in a car together with their Russian translator.
The head of Russia’s human rights group Memorial, Alexander Cherkasov, said the translator - whom he identified as Andrei Mironov - had also died in the attack.
Cherkasov said Mironov was a Soviet-era dissident who learnt Italian while spending time in a labour camp he was sent to for his political views.
“He worked constantly with the Italian press,” said Cherkasov.
“In 1994-96 he worked in Chechnya,” where Islamic militants waged a separatist campaign against Russian troops.
“It was his mission - to be in places like that to provide people with truthful information,” Cherkasov said.
Roguelon said all three men were hit by shrapnel from mortar shells during a sudden flareup in fighting between government troops and separatists just south of the city.
He said that the other photographer and the translator had tried to seek shelter in a ditch as up to 60 shells fell.
“They adjust their aim and one of the shells fell in the middle of the ditch,” the French photographer said.
Roguelon said he received shrapnel wounds to both legs but could not identify who was attacking the reporters’ position.
But he noted that it was the rebels who allowed him to leave the area.
Both the Ukrainian foreign and interior ministries said they had no immediate information about the incident.
But the city’s self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Russian media that the three men “came under fire from the Ukrainian side”.
Slavyansk was one of the first cities seized by armed separatists at the start of their insurgency in early April and is now the scene of intense almost daily fighting between the rebels and pro-Kiev forces.
The government’s offensive is being led by National Guard forces made up of some members of nationalist paramilitary groups behind protests in Kiev that toppled the pro-Russian regime in February.
Rocchelli was a graduate of the Polytechnic University of Milan and had previously covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Libya.
His photographs featured in an article entitled “We Are Not Animals” about family life under wartime conditions in Slavyansk published on the website of Russia’s opposition Novaya Gazeta paper on May 19.
The article was written by Mironov.