Tens of thousands mourn murdered Ukraine rebel 'hero'

Yulia SILINA with Olga SHYLENKO in Kiev
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People line the streets of Donetsk to pay respects to an assassinated rebel leader in east Ukraine

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 Vladimir Putin.

Crowds of admirers -- many clutching flowers and in tears -- clapped and shouted "spasibo" (thank you) as the flag-draped casket of Alexander Zakharchenko, the 42-year-old 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 lawmaker Natalia Poklonskaya also turned out.

In a statement carried by the Donetsk republic's news agency, Russian President 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, calling Zakharchenko Sasha, a diminutive form of his first name.

Armed men in fatigues cordoned off the city centre and public transport was temporarily suspended.

- 'Personal loss' -

Huge billboards erected in the city centre 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, 41-year-old 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, 35.

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

Putin on Friday swiftly sent condolences to Zakharchenko's family and residents of east Ukraine.

- Celebration in Kiev -

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.

They drank sparkling wine and ate chicken in front of portraits of Putin, Zakharchenko and iconic pro-Kremlin crooner Iosif Kobzon who also died this week.

The portraits of the camouflage-clad Zakharchenko and Kobzon -- who once sang together -- were crossed out with red paint.

The activists threw chicken bones at the photographs.

Moscow and rebel authorities have said Kiev was behind the assassination, while Ukraine links the bombing to internal feuding and Russia's desire to control the territory.

Russia has said the murder was a provocation and would derail the long-stalled, Western-brokered peace process.

Zakharchenko had led Russian-backed insurgents in the rebel region for the last four years.

In November 2014, he was elected the first president of the Donetsk republic and earlier that year took part in the storming of the regional administration building that launched the conflict.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the insurgency broke out in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in April 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.