MINSK, Belarus (AP) — A senior separatist official in eastern Ukraine on Friday announced the resignation of the beleaguered rebel chief in an apparent palace coup, ending a four-day showdown between rivaling factions.
Leonid Pasechnik, state security minister of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, said in a statement on Friday evening that the republic's chief Igor Plotnitsky has resigned on health grounds. Pasechnik said he would be the acting chief until an election is called.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and a million displaced in a long-simmering conflict between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in Luhansk and in parts of the neighboring Donetsk region since 2014. The region has been plagued with infighting between various armed groups and warlords. Political and military leaders in Luhansk have been unseated and died in suspicious circumstances.
Pressure mounted on Plotnitsky earlier this week after he fired Interior Minister Igor Kornet. The influential minister refused to resign and enlisted help from the separatists in the neighboring Donetsk region to deny Plotnitsky's order. Dozens of armed people loyal to Kornet blocked the access to the main administrative buildings in the regional capital, Luhansk, on Tuesday. A convoy of armed vehicles entered the city in the middle of the night in a show of support.
Plotnitsky in a video message on Wednesday accused Kornet of trying to unseat him while the minister himself lashed out at Plotnitsky, suggesting in a televised statement that "the republic's leadership" is under the influence of Ukrainian spies.
Plotnitsky came to power in August 2014 after he unseated a warlord who later fled to Russia.
There was no immediate statement from Plotnitsky who has not appeared in public since Wednesday. The 53-year old former Ukrainian bureaucrat was spotted arriving at a Russian airport on Thursday with a carry-on bag.
Several high-profile commanders have been killed in the Luhansk region in suspicious circumstances in recent years in what was widely viewed as power struggle. While the unruly commanders were dying in car bombings, the leadership of the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came to be dominated by bureaucrats with ties to ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The rebels originally sought to join Russia but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicizing its military support for the rebels. It is widely assumed that Moscow provides the rebels with weapons and funding.
Fighting has intensified in the Luhansk region this week. The press office of the Ukrainian armed forces said on Friday that at least five Ukrainian troops had been killed there in the past 24 hours in what it called the biggest loss of life since July.
The European Union on Friday blamed Russia for the deaths, calling it "just the latest proof of the tragic consequences of Russia's aggression in Ukraine."
"The EU condemns Russia's aggression and will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea," EU Council President Donald Tusk said after a summit with six eastern European nations, including Ukraine.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.