DONETSK: Thousands of Ukrainians stood in line with flowers on Friday in the separatist fiefdom of Donetsk to bid farewell to a field commander who was slain in a rocket attack on his office.
Kiev and the insurgents have traded blame for the death of Mikhail Tolstykh with investigators saying a portable rocket launcher was fired at his office in a suburb of Donetsk on Wednesday morning.
The 36-year-old whose nom de guerre was “Givi” was head of the powerful “Somali” battalion and a leading commander of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in the east of Ukraine.
Tolstykh’s body was laid out in the city’s opera theater with the battalion’s flag covering his closed coffin.
AFP reporters saw about 2,000 people — most of them pensioners and rebel fighters — line up with flowers and orange-and-black ribbons expressing their support for Russia to get inside the theater and say their final goodbyes.
Another well-known Donetsk military chief called Arseny Pavlov was killed in a bomb attack in October last year.
Several rebel commanders considered to be a threat to the separatist authorities — or those who have become too powerful — 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.
He was born in eastern Ukraine and served in the army as a tank commander before working in various manual jobs and then joining the rebel cause when the war broke out in April 2014.
He and Pavlov — better known as “Motorola” — had been the most recognized faces among the rebels during the worst of the fighting.
They both starred in viral video clips from the combat zone and were often interviewed by Russian state channels.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking eastern industrial regions revolted against Kiev’s pro-Western government after the ouster of the former Soviet republic’s Kremlin-backed president.