MOSCOW – The leader of the Russia-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region was killed Friday by an explosion at a cafe, the separatists' news agency said Friday.
Rebel news agency DAN said the afternoon explosion killed Alexander Zakharchenko, 42, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic. The separatist government's revenue minister, Alexander Timofeev, was severely injured in the blast, Russian news agencies reported.
The Donetsk People's Republic, along with a separatist republic in neighboring Luhansk, has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, the same year Zakharchenko became DPR's prime minister. More than 10,000 people have died in the armed conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Zakharchenko as "a true people's leader" and promised residents of Donetsk that "Russia always will be with you."
The cafe in the city of Donetsk that was hit by the explosion, named Separ, was separatist-themed and had camouflage netting hanging from its eaves, recent photographs show.
It was not immediately clear if a bomb caused the blast or it resulted from something else. Russia's Interfax news agency cited local sources as saying suspects had been detained, but there was no official confirmation.
Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the separatists' parliament, blamed Ukrainian forces for the explosion, calling it "the latest aggression from the Ukrainian side," according to DAN.
A spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Security Service, Elena Gitlyanskaya, said "The Ukrainian special services don't have any kind of connection to this."
There have been several assassinations or attempted slayings of prominent rebels in recent years. It never was established if pro-Kiev attackers were responsible or if the violence resulted from factional disputes within the rebel ranks or Moscow's possible desire to eliminate individuals it found inconvenient.
Among the prominent separatists who have been targeted are former Luhansk leader Igor Plotnitsky, who was severely injured in 2016 when a bomb exploded near his car; Arsen Pavlov, a feared squadron leader known as "Motorola" who died when the elevator of his apartment building was bombed; and fighter Mikhail Tolstykh, whose office is believed to have been hit by a shoulder-fired rocket.
Russia denies providing troops or equipment to the separatists despite widespread allegations it has done so. Russia is believed to have supplied a mobile Buk missile launcher that a team of international investigators claims shot down a Malaysian passenger jet while flying over rebel territory in 2014, killing all 209 people aboard.
The rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk arose soon after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power amid mass protests in February 2014. Russian-speakers predominate in the two regions, and separatist sentiment skyrocketed.
Encouraged by Russia's annexation of Crimea, which also came after Yanukovych's ouster, rebel leaders initially hoped their regions would be absorbed by Russia as well.
Fighting fell off significantly after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015 signed an accord in Minsk, Belarus on ending the conflict. But most of the agreement's provisions remain unfulfilled and clashes break out sporadically.
"Instead of fulfilling the Minsk accords and finding ways to resolve the internal conflict, the Kiev war party is implementing a terrorist scenario," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of Zakharchenko's death. "Having failed to fulfill the promise of peace, apparently they decided to turn to a bloodbath."