Natalia Zakharchenko, the widow of prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Alexander Zakharchenko, mourns during the funeral in Donetsk, Ukraine, September 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Natalia Zakharchenko, the widow of prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic Alexander Zakharchenko, mourns during the funeral in Donetsk, Ukraine, September 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Donetsk — Tens of thousands of mourners thronged the streets in Ukraine’s rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Sunday to pay their final respects to an assassinated separatist leader, who was praised as a "brother" and a "hero" by an aide of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Crowds of admirers clapped and shouted "spasibo" (thank you) as the flag-draped casket of Alexander Zakharchenko, the chief of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was driven through the streets en route to a cemetery.

Zakharchenko was killed in a bombing at a Donetsk cafe on Friday, becoming the four-year conflict’s most prominent victim from the Moscow-backed side. His bodyguard also died and 12 more people were injured.

At least 100,000 mourners came to pay their respects to Zakharchenko, whose body had lain "in state" at a theatre for several hours, the authorities said.

Several members of Russia’s ultra-nationalist bikers’ club Night Wolves including their leader Alexander Zaldostanov were in attendance.

The head of Georgia’s breakaway statelet, South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, and Russian legislator Natalia Poklonskaya also turned out.

In a statement carried by the Donetsk republic’s news agency, Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov called the separatist a "brother". "You are a cool guy, a true hero and it’s a huge honour to be your friend," said Surkov.

Armed men in fatigues cordoned off the city centre and public transport was temporarily suspended. Huge billboards were plastered with pictures of Zakharchenko and his quotes. "All of us have one Motherland — Russia", read one.

"They have taken away a part of our soul," said one mourner, Oksana, who declined to give her last name. "He was like a member of the family. It’s a personal loss for me."

Many blamed Ukraine for the bombing.

"We will never forget this tragedy, we will never forgive," said Sergei Kapustin.

Zakharchenko will be buried next to two rebel commanders known by their noms de guerre, Givi and Motorola.

Putin sent condolences to Zakharchenko’s family and residents of east Ukraine. In the capital Kiev, several dozen political activists celebrated the demise of the pro-western authorities’ arch-enemy by setting up a table in front of the Russian embassy.

AFP

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