Russian makes way for a Ukrainian as head of pro-Moscow rebels in Donetsk

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 3:40am

An eastern Ukraine native has replaced a Russian as leader of separatists in their stronghold of Donetsk, a move aimed at blunting Western accusations the rebellion is being run by Moscow.

Aleksander Borodai, one of several Russian nationals in top roles among the rebels as the head of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR), said on Thursday he would now serve as deputy to the new leader, Alexander Zakharchenko.

"After all, I am a native of Moscow and I think the DNR should be run by a person who is body and soul of Donbass," Borodai said, referring to the wider Donetsk region.

Zakharchenko, sporting a green camouflage jacket, said he would go on fighting for the region's independence from Kiev.

A native of Donetsk in his late 30s, Zakharchenko commands a heavily armed rebel unit called Oplot, which has taken part in some of the fiercest battles and had its origins in a martial arts club.

He was among the first separatists to occupy the regional administration building in Donetsk after pro-Russian crowds captured it in March following the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-allied president in Kiev, the previous month.

"That is great news. He is an experienced fighter and commander, not some talking-head politician," said one of the fighters of the Vostok rebel battalion, which cooperates closely with Zakharchenko's Oplot.

The nomination of a seasoned fighter to head the DNR also comes as fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev's troops have pressed ahead with a campaign against the pro-Russian rebellion and recaptured ground in recent weeks.

Fighting intensified after Ukraine's pro-Western president, Petro Poroshenko, was inaugurated in early June and stepped up again after a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over rebel-held territory on July 17, killing all 298 on board.

The Dutch government said yesterday that Dutch forensics experts had identified 21 more victims of the downed flight MH17, as their colleagues began arriving home from east Ukraine where the fighting has stopped the investigation. Only two bodies had previously been identified. Of the 21 new victims, 16 are Dutch, including a dual British national, two Malaysian, one German, one Canadian and one British, the Dutch justice ministry said.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse