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Kremlin 'Following' Situation In Ukraine's Russia-Backed Separatist-Controlled Luhansk


Armed, masked men block off a street in the center of the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk on November 22.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said Moscow is closely following the situation in the parts of Ukraine's eastern region of Luhansk that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists following reports that local separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky has fled to Russia.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow on November 22, Peskov said that "there is an understanding" in the Kremlin about who may be behind the tensions in what the separatists call the "Luhansk People's Republic" (LNR), but did not elaborate further.

On November 21, armed men in unmarked uniforms took up positions in the center of the provincial capital, Luhansk, in what appeared to be part of a power struggle among the separatists.

Media reports in Russia said on November 22, citing unofficial sources, that Plotnitsky and his family had fled to Russia amid the tension. Moscow controls part of the Ukrainian state border in the Luhansk region.

Ukrainian lawmaker Anton Herashchenko told reporters in Kyiv on November 22 that Plotnitsky was in Russia.

However, the separatists' television channel in Luhansk reported on November 22 that Plotnitsky was in Luhansk and showed a video in which Plotnitsky was shown leading a meeting of de facto government members and was heard accusing the de facto former police chief, Igor Kornet, of "attempting to overthrow the government."

However, it is not clear the video was shot in Luhansk.

WATCH: Gunmen in unmarked uniforms appeared on the streets of Luhansk, in an apparent power struggle among Russia-backed separatists who control the Ukrainian city. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

Earlier reports said that several trucks with armed military personnel arrived in Luhansk during the night of November 21-22.

Aric Toler, a researcher working for the Bellingcat open-source investigations organization, reported that the personnel in the trucks were Russia-backed separatists from the adjacent Ukrainian region of Donetsk, parts of which are also controlled by separatists in a self-proclaimed entity called the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR).

Parts of the two regions have been held by Russia-backed separatists since Moscow fomented unrest there following the ouster of Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Russia has provided military, economic, and political support to the separatists since a war broke out in the area in April 2014 that has left more than 10,000 people dead.

Moscow denies involvement in the conflict, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Moscow also says it respects Ukraine's territorial integrity although it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March 2014 and controls part of Ukraine's border over Kyiv's objections.

Peskov on November 22 refused to comment when asked about the possibility the two separatist entities could merge in the future. "That is an issue for the two republics," he said, using the separatists' term for the areas they control.

Earlier on November 22, the head of Russia's presidential directorate for cooperation with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mikhail Arutyunov, rejected reports that Moscow supported Kornet in his standoff with Plotnitsky, saying that the situation was the "LNR's internal affair and nobody turned to the Kremlin asking for help."

Media reported on November 22 that LNR police and DNR security forces jointly stormed the separatists' de facto prosecutor's office in Luhansk and arrested the self-proclaimed LNR chief prosecutor, Vitaly Podobry, and de facto "military prosecutor," Sergei Razno.

It was not clear if forces loyal to Plotnitsky or to Kornet were involved in the arrests.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the implementation of a much-violated ceasefire agreement with Ukraine, said on Facebook that "military-type vehicles" and "unidentified armed men" remained in the center of Luhansk on November 22.

Many of the armed men were wearing white arm bands and had covered their faces, the monitoring mission said. It noted an "overall calm" in the city but said its observers were denied access to an intersection in Luhansk by unidentified armed men. ​

With reporting by Rusvesna.su, UNIAN, Novaya Gazeta, Interfax, TASS, and Meduza
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