Ukraine rebels bid farewell to notorious commander

Ukraine rebels bid farewell to notorious commander

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Thousands of pro-Russian rebels and supporters in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday turned out to bid farewell to notorious rebel commander Arseny Pavlov, who was killed in a weekend bombing.

Some 5,000 people came to Donetsk's opera house to pay last respects to the 33-year-old Russian, known as "Motorola", who died Sunday when a homemade device exploded in his apartment block.

A Russian army veteran from the Komi region, Pavlov joined the fighting in east Ukraine in 2014 as a volunteer, rising to prominence after appearing on Russian television broadcasts.

He boasted in a 2015 interview of shooting 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war, prompting Kiev's defence ministry to say he was lucky to die in a bombing rather than serving an "inevitable" life sentence.

Some mourners carried flowers and black-and-orange St. George's ribbons that symbolise World War II victory and have been adopted by the Kremlin-backed insurgents, an AFP correspondent reported from the scene.

The grandiose memorial ceremony was also shown live on Russian state television.

More than 100 armed men in camouflage guarded the opera house, where the leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) Alexander Zakharchenko, stood by the coffin.

"A great public figure, a real warrior, a man who remained undefeated in an open battle is now gone", said 63-year-old Alexander Kurenkov, a rebel fighter standing in the guard of honour.

"He was killed in a terrorist attack," he added.

Natalia, a 32-year-old doctor carrying a bunch of red carnations, praised Pavlov as "a hero of DPR, a hero of Russia."

After the ceremony, militants from the Sparta battallion Pavlov commanded carried his coffin out to brass music as the crowd chanted "We will not forget, we will not forgive!"

The coffin was then placed on the gun carriage of an open-topped truck, and the funeral procession slowly moved through streets lined with mourners to a local cemetery.

Several people told AFP that state employees including teachers and doctors were "strongly recommended" to be present at the funeral.

"Lessons were cut for all the teachers to come here. Students were also freed from classes", said Viktor, a 42-year-old history teacher.

Pavlov is the latest in a series of rebel leaders to be killed in the eastern Ukrainian regions controlled by militias.

Fighting has dragged on there despite a peace plan brokered by Germany and France, which has run aground amid acrimony between Russia and Ukraine. The conflict, which broke out in April 2014, has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.

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