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The Mysterious Assassination Of A Rebel Commander In Ukraine

  • Merhat Sharipzhan

Aleksei Mozgovoi pictured in the Luhansk region in October, 2014

Aleksei Mozgovoi pictured in the Luhansk region in October, 2014

This much is clear -- a leading pro-Russian separatist commander in eastern Ukraine and several of his associates were killed in a gangland-style hit on May 23. The question is, who carried it out?

Depending on who you listen to, the correct answer could be that Aleksei Mozgovoi was assassinated by rival separatists, Russia, the United States, or a pro-Ukrainian commando unit.

Mozgovoi, leader of the separatist Ghost battalion, was killed when the multi-vehicle convoy he was riding in was bombed and then sprayed with gunfire by attackers, according to the press service for the separatist-controlled portion of Luhansk region.

(WATCH: Video from the scene)

The early-evening ambush took place near the rebel-controlled town of Alchevsk, about 30 kilometers away from the front line, and according to the press service took the lives of Mozgovoi, his press secretary Anna Samelyuk, three armed bodyguards, and a local married couple.

The separatists quickly accused Kyiv of being behind the assassination. But Kyiv later denied any involvement, and pointed the finger at Mozgovoi's foes within the separatist movement.

An ongoing battle for control between pro-Russian rebels in the region was to blame, Ukrainian presidential spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told reporters on May 24.

Mozgovoi had long been suspected of running afoul of Luhansk's self-proclaimed separatist leader, Igor Plotnitsky, and some key officials in the Kremlin.

Plotnitsky took to the Luhansk People's Republic's official website to address the suggestion, expressing solidarity with fellow separatists and saying "I mourn together with all those who knew Aleksei Borisovich Mozgovoi and those who walked this journey together with him."

The attack on Mozgovoi and his comrades-in arms, Plotnitsky said, "was an attack on all of us -- people who defend the right for the [separatist region] to exist."

Claiming to be the last to interview Mozgovoi, The Independent wrote that just one week before he died the separatist commander had dismissed threats to his life.

"They wouldn't risk making anyone a hero," he told the British daily, after having survived a highway assassination attempt just months prior.

(WATCH: Mozgovoi dismisses assassination attempt)

The Independent pointed out that in the wake of his killing the authorities of the Luhansk People's Republic "have been quick to push a theory that subversive groups loyal to Kyiv were responsible for the assassination."

"I believe that in the context of war, it is criminal to put forward other versions," Ghost Battalion acting commander Yuri Shevchenko told the newspaper.

The theory was supported by a Facebook post made by Oleksandr Hladkyy, described by the Russian news agency as the head of a pro-Ukrainian commando unit known as the Shadows, in which he claimed responsibility for the attack and describes how it was pulled off.

But as The Independent noted, Hladkyy's Shadow unit has "made similar and generally unreliable claims in the past" and few in Mozgovoi's battalion seemed convinced that Ukrainian subversive groups were responsible.

"His killers were internal," the daily quoted Ghost Battalion deputy commander Kyrylo Androsov as saying.

Speculation Mozgovoi's assassination was an inside job has continued to thrive...

...with many suggesting that Mozgovoi's rocky relations with pro-Russia separatist leaders had led Moscow to step in and take care of business ...

... and others noting that several senior pro-Russian rebel commanders have been shot dead under mysterious circumstances in recent months.

The United States has not escaped accusations of involvement either.

Russian Duma Defense Committee member Franz Klintsevich said on May 24 that the hands of Western intelligence agencies -- particularly American -- could be seen in Mozgovoi's killing.

Seeing that their chances in a confrontation with separatists was "zero," RIA Novosti quoted Kintsevich as saying, "Western friends" of popular Ukrainian security officials "decided to bet on terror."

Mozgovoi, who can be seen here appealing to fighters on both side of the conflict, played a central role in battles that swung momentum in favor of the separatists and led Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to sue for peace.

The 40-something former folk choir singer and poet resisted the terms of the Minsk II agreement signed in February that permitted only limited self-rule in separatist territory.

Mozgovoi made waves when he suggested that he would arrest any women who were sitting in bars, and was featured on a U.S. blacklist for organizing a summary court system that targeted those either backing Kyiv or practicing Western lifestyles.

Mozgovoi, who in his New Year's message expressed confidence that his dream of a free Novorossia -- an independent state carved out of eastern Ukraine -- would come to be, will be buried on May 27.