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Tens of thousands gather for funeral of Ukrainian rebel leader

Alexander Zakharchenko was the highest-profile member of Moscow-backed rebels to be killed in Ukraine's war.

Alexander Zakharchenko

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Ukraine's rebel stronghold Donetsk on Sunday to mourn the killing of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko.

Mourners queued to view the flag-draped coffin of the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic at a local theatre.

Zakharchenko died in a blast at a coffee shop in Donetsk on Friday. His bodyguard was also killed and 12 more people were wounded. 

He was the most prominent figure from the Russia-backed side to be killed in Ukraine's four-year conflict. Zakharchenko had been wounded twice in combat and survived a car bomb in August 2014.

Authorities estimated the turnout for the funeral was about 100,000 people, while a correspondent from AFP news agency put the number closer to 30,000.

Donetsk's city centre was cordoned off and public transport temporarily suspended as people gathered to pay their respects.

Billboards displayed pictures of Zakharchenko and his quotes, including "All of us have one Motherland - Russia."

Russia accused Ukraine of assassinating the 42-year-old, but Kiev blamed the explosion on separatist infighting. 

Many mourners pointed a finger at Ukraine's government for being behind the attack. "We will never forget this tragedy, we will never forgive," said Sergei Kapustin, 35.

READ MORE: Alexander Zakharchenko killed in Donetsk cafe explosion

'A cool guy'

Anatoly Bibilov, leader of Georgia's breakaway region South Ossetia, and Alexander Borodai, a Russian journalist and former prime minister of the Donetsk republic, were in attendance. 

Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, issued a statement carried by Donetsk's official news agency calling Zakharchenko a "brother".

"You are a cool guy, a true hero and it's a huge honour to be your friend," it read.

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 People's Republic in November 2014 from a number of Russians, in a bid to show 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.

Ongoing conflict

Putin called his death a "dastardly" crime aimed at destabilising a fragile regional peace.

"I expect that the organisers and executors of this crime will get the deserved punishment," he said in a telegram of condolences released by the Kremlin. 

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Zakharchenko's murder would derail long-delayed international peace talks on Ukraine.

Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are involved in the talks, known as the Normandy format, which was established to seek a peaceful settlement to the conflict. 

More than 10,000 people have been killed since rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions overthrew Ukrainian central rule in April 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea

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

Kiev and its Western allies have accused Russia of sending troops and arms into Ukraine. Moscow denies the allegations but has admitted Russian "volunteers" are assisting the rebels.

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