By Dmitry Solovyov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Armed men in masks blocked off the center of Ukraine's rebel-controlled city of Luhansk on Wednesday in what the rebel leader said was a revolt by supporters of a sacked regional police chief.
In fighting that broke out in 2014, Russian-backed rebels threw off rule by a new pro-Western leadership in Kiev and set up two self-proclaimed separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine, one centred around Luhansk and another around the city of Donetsk.
Those separatist regions are now locked in a "frozen conflict", aided by Moscow but not recognized by any state, and they have been dogged by outbreaks of internal tensions that has on occasion turned violent.
The tension in Luhansk on Tuesday did not appear to have any direct connection to the conflict between the rebels and Ukraine's government.
Residents of Luhansk, capital of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), saw unidentified armed men blocking access to downtown streets on Tuesday morning, according to local media and a resident of the city.
In a statement issued on his administration's web site, the LNR's rebel leader, Igor Plotnitsky, blamed disgruntled supporters of Igor Kornet, his interior minister whom he said he had fired on Monday.
"The attempts by certain elements in the interior ministry in this way to challenge the decision .... (to remove Kornet) have gone beyond the bounds of what is acceptable," Plotnitsky said in his statement.
"I can say with confidence that the attempts by certain persons to stay in power by destabilizing the situation ... are futile, and in the very near future will be neutralized," he said in a statement.
But the ex-minister said he was still in his job, and demanded that senior figures in the region's rebel leadership be prosecuted.
"I want to dispel rumors that I've been removed," Kornet, clad in field camouflage, said in a video message. "We have the situation completely under control."
He said that he had uncovered evidence that several senior LNR officials, acting in collusion with Kiev, were "involved in criminal activity to the detriment of the interests of the republic and the people of Luhansk".
"Last night I provided all the documents available to the Luhansk republic's leader, Igor Plotnitsky, who decided to launch criminal cases and arrest those involved," Kornet said.
In his own statement, Plotnitsky, the Luhansk rebel leader, contradicted this, saying there were no grounds to arrest the officials identified by Kornet.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Richard Balmforth)