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Alexander Zakharchenko killed in Donetsk cafe explosion

Russia accuses Ukraine of assassinating separatist leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

Alexander Zakharchenko

A key separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has been killed in a blast at a coffee shop in Donetsk, according to rebels.

The explosion on Friday fatally wounded Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, which has been pushing for independence since 2014 after Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Russia accused Ukraine of assassinating the 42-year-old, but Kiev said it had nothing to do with the explosion and blamed separatist infighting.

Zakharchenko "received injuries incompatible with life as a result of an explosion in the centre of Donetsk", the separatist administration said in a statement. It added that the blast also injured  Alexander Timofeyev, the deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed republic. 

'Bloody fight'

Russian-backed rebels threw off Ukrainian central rule in an armed uprising after pro-Western leaders opposed by Moscow came to power in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in 2014.

A shaky internationally-brokered ceasefire has been in force since 2015, halting large-scale fighting, though there are still frequent outbreaks of shooting incidents on the front line between the separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Russia's foreign ministry said it had every reason to believe Kiev was responsible for Zakharchenko's death, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Rossiya-24 state television station.

Zakharchenko's death shows that Kiev has decided to engage in a "bloody fight" and has passed on its promises of seeking peace, she said.

In Kiev, a spokeswoman for the state security service, Yelena Gitlyanskaya, dismissed Moscow's accusations.

"According to our information, this was the result of internal fighting which has already been continuing for years between the terrorists and their Russian sponsors," she said.

Coalmine electrician to rebel leader

Zakharchenko, a former coal mine electrician, joined pro-Russian separatists in an armed uprising in Donetsk in 2014 and sold his business to help fund the movement.

He took the reins as the leader of the Donetsk Republic in November 2014 from a number of Russians, in a bid to show that Ukraine's separatist movement wasn't a Russian-led operation.

Other rebel leaders say he was handpicked for the role by Moscow. A vote held by separatists confirmed him in office.

Zakharchenko introduced Soviet-style military parades with tanks in Donetsk and usually wore military fatigues, despite his political role.

He proposed the creation of a new country called "Malorossia" or "Little Russia", encompassing Ukraine, with its capital in Donetsk.

In the past, he said had been the target of several assassination attempts, accusing Ukraine of trying to kill him in an explosion back in 2016.

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