Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - A military chief of a self-proclaimed Russian-backed republic in eastern Ukraine was killed in an "act of terror" Wednesday, the latest victim of a string of similar attacks, local authorities said.
The dead man was Mikhail Tolstykh, 36, head of the notorious "Somali" battalion and a leading commander of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, the rebels' spokesman told AFP.
"There has been an act of terror and Givi was killed," Eduard Basurin said, using the nom de guerre which Tolstykh was better known by.
He blamed Ukrainian security services but declined to provide more details. Local reports said Tolstykh's office was blasted by a flamethrower.
Rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko accused the Ukrainian military of conducting the attack.
"The Ukrainians... can not defeat us on the battlefield, so they kill us in a malicious way," he said.
Kiev's SBU security service however denied that it was responsible, instead suspecting an internal operation to clear the rebel ranks.
"People tied to illegal armed groups are purged by special agencies beyond the line of contact," an advisor the the SBU chief, Yuriy Tandit, told the 112 Ukrainian channel.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the killing "an attempt to destabilise the situation" in eastern Ukraine and also denied that Russia was in any way involved in it.
Rebel officials announced two days of mourning after Tolstykh's death.
In October, another well-known Donetsk military chief, Arseny Pavlov, was killed in a bomb attack.
Several rebel commanders considered to be adversaries of the separatist authorities have been killed in car bombings and ambushes far from the scene of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Tolstykh took part in major battles with Ukrainian government forces in a conflict that has been going on for 33 months despite Western efforts to forge a truce.
Born in eastern Ukraine, he served in the army as a tank commander and later worked various manual jobs before he joined the rebel cause, where he also started off as a driver for another commander.
He and Pavlov, who was better known as "Motorola", had been the most recognised faces among the rebels during the worst of the fighting, starring in viral video clips from the combat zone and interviewed often by state channels.
Russia's state-owned Rossiya24 channel heavily covered his killing Wednesday, airing archived portraits and showing the charred building and an office gutted by an apparent fire.
Some 10,000 people have been killed since Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial regions revolted against Kiev's pro-Western government in April 2014.
Kiev and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels and deploying troops across the border, claims that Moscow denies.