Russian civilians fighting alongside separatists, claims rebel leader on TV

Zakharchenko says up to 4,000 Russians joined rebel ranks in last few months

Rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko:  said  Russians fighting alongside separatists included many high-ranking former military officers and soldiers on holiday, and were  not part of an invading army. Photograph: Max Vetrov/AP

Rebel chief Alexander Zakharchenko: said Russians fighting alongside separatists included many high-ranking former military officers and soldiers on holiday, and were not part of an invading army. Photograph: Max Vetrov/AP

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 01:00

Whatever the reality on the ground, Russia continues to deny that it has sent troops to southeast Ukraine to support the pro-Moscow separatist insurgency.

In an odd twist to the official narrative, Russian state television broadcast an interview with a Ukrainian rebel leader yesterday who claimed that Russian citizens were flocking to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to fight alongside the separatists because they considered it their duty.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians joined the rebel ranks in the last few months. Battles against Ukrainian government troops would have been much harder without their help, he added.

Mr Zakharchenko insisted the Russians, including many high-ranking former military officers and soldiers on holiday, were volunteers and not part of an invading army. “There are many in the current Russian military who prefer to spend their leave among us, brothers who are fighting for freedom, rather than at the seaside on a beach,” he said.

Strategic town

Russia’s Vesti television station showed the interview with Zakharchenko as rebel forces in Ukraine captured the strategic town of Novoazovsk near the coast of the Azov Sea. A column of Russian military vehicles crossed the Ukrainian border shortly after noon and rolled onto Novazovsk, according to Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Committee.

It sounded like an invasion, but Andrei Kelin, Russia’s envoy to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said otherwise. “No Russian forces are crossing at any point of the border with Ukraine,” he told reporters at an emergency OSCE meeting in Vienna.

Mr Zakharchenko said the Russians, as “blood brothers”, were prepared “to go to any place in the world to fight and die for the independence and freedom of peoples”. Unfortunately, some Russians had lost their lives, he said.

Secret burials

Russian independent media outlets raised the alarm about a series of secret burials of paratroopers they suspect were killed while serving in Ukraine. Several journalists said they were attacked while investigating a remote graveyard in western Russia where two paratroopers had been laid to rest.

Ella Pamfilova, a member of the Russian presidential committee of human rights, called for an official investigation of the burials. It was strange the death certificates of some soldiers recently returned to their families for burial omitted to detail where they had died, she told Echo Moskvy radio station.