A prominent pro-Russian separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has been assassinated in one of the highest profile killings in the region since war broke out in 2014.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the president of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was reported killed in an explosion in a cafe in Donetsk, the breakaway statelet's capital, on Friday afternoon.
His death was confirmed by separatist officials and Ukraine's Security Service, the SBU. Zakharchenko suffered head injuries that were not survivable and died in hospital, Russian media reported on Friday.
Two other ministers of the self-declared separatist government caught up in the blast have been hospitalised with severe injuries. The former mining electrician had run the DPR, one of two breakaway statelets sponsored and backed by Moscow, since 2014.
He is the most senior of a string of separatist field commanders and officials to suffer mysterious violent deaths since a 2015 peace deal slowed but failed to end the conflict.
Alexander Kazakov, an advisor to Zakharchenko, said the attack may have been carried out by the same people who murdered Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov and Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, prominent field commanders who were assassinated in explosions in 2016 and 2017.
He called the blast a "terrorist attack" and said a device had been planted in the cafe “deliberately” and “in advance.”
Police and security forces in Donetsk detained several suspects in the immediate aftermath of the blast, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing an unidentified source familiar with the situation. The source claimed the detainees were Ukrainian "saboteurs".
Russian officials also accused Ukraine of carrying out the assassination.
"We have every reason to believe that the regime in Kiev is behind his murder,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday.
“Kiev’s war party is carrying out a terrorist scenario, worsening the situation in the region that is complicated enough,” she added.
Ukraine denied any involvement in the incident. Olena Gitlyanska, the SBU spokeswoman, attributed the attack to “internal conflicts” within the region.
Igor Guskov, the SBU head’s chief of staff, said on Ukrainian television that he believed Russia may have been involved in the killing.
“We are not excluding the possibility of Russian law enforcement services attempting to eliminate a notorious figure which, according to our information, was getting in the way and became redundant,” Mr Guskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Mr Zakharchenko, 42, became the leader of the DPR after fighting against Ukrainian government forces in the war that broke out four years ago.
He was named the head of the breakaway region after winning by a landslide in a controversial election, condemned by the European Union as “illegal and illegitimate.”
Prior to that he was the head of the “cabinet” of the region.
Russian-backed security forces put Donetsk on lockdown on Friday evening and blocked all movement into and out of the self-proclaimed republic as they continued a manhunt for suspected perpetrators.
An emergency session of the government was summoned to select an acting head of the statelet.