Zelenskiy replaces special operations chief for second time in six months

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Zelenskiy visits Donetsk region

By Yuliia Dysa

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy replaced the commander of his special forces on Thursday, the second time in half a year that he has changed the head of the unit which operates in Moscow-occupied territories.

The dismissal of Colonel Serhiy Lupanchuk and appointment of Brigadier General Oleksandr Trepak in his place was announced in two decrees on the president's website that provided no explanation for the move.

Since 2014, Trepak has been actively participating in defence operations in east Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists. He was engaged in leading the push to repel the Russian assault on Donetsk airport, one of the biggest operations back then.

The Ukrainian military's chain of command has been changed at different levels since February when Zelenskiy replaced his top commander, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, with then-ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi in a major shake up.

At the time, Zelenskiy said a new military leadership was taking control of the armed forces and promised to "reboot" the system by bringing in experienced commanders who understood the daily needs of the troops.

The shakeup came at an uncertain time for Ukraine with Russian troops beginning to advance in the east, taking advantage of shortages of Ukrainian manpower at the front as well as dwindling stocks of artillery shells.

In a separate decree on Thursday, Zelenskiy also reappointed Dmytro Hereha as commander of the army's support forces, a post he was dismissed from without any explanation in March.

Lupanchuk was appointed to lead the special forces last November following the sudden dismissal of his predecessor Viktor Horenko.

Horenko's dismissal was seen at the time as a sign of a growing rift between Zelenskiy and his then top commander who was fired months later.

The special forces do not have a public profile, but are thought to have been involved in Ukraine's most ambitious operations in Russian-held areas and in particular the peninsula of Crimea.

(Reporting by Yuliia Dysa and Kyiv bureau; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Sharon Singleton)