November 24, 2017 / 5:14 PM / a year ago

Ukraine rebel region's security chief says he is new leader

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The security minister of Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebel region of Luhansk said on Friday he was taking over power from regional chief Igor Plotnitsky, who days earlier had said he was facing an attempted armed coup to force him out.

In a video posted on a rebel news portal in Luhansk, the security minister, Leonid Pasechnik, said he was taking over after Plotnitsky resigned for health reasons. But there was no immediate word from Plotnitsky himself.

Luhansk and the neighbouring Donetsk region rebelled against rule from Kiev in 2014 and declared themselves independent.

More than 10,000 people were killed in the conflict between the pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine’s Western-leaning government.

But since then, the regions, which are backed by Moscow, have been troubled by infighting that has at times turned violent.

“Today Igor Venediktovich Plotnitsky resigned for health reasons. Multiple war wounds, the effects of blast injuries, took their toll,” Pasechnik said in the video.

“In accordance with his decision, I am taking on the duties of head of the republic until forthcoming elections.”

Earlier this week, armed men in camouflage uniforms, with masks over their faces, blocked access to central streets in the city of Luhansk, capital of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Luhansk”.

Plotnitsky said it was a coup attempt by supporters of Igor Kornet, the rebel region’s interior minister whom he had sacked. But Plotnitsky said at the time he had the situation under control and that the plotters would be dealt with.

Though Moscow denies having any influence over the rebel regions, multiple separatist leaders have told Reuters that Kremlin officials effectively select the rebel leaders. A Kremlin spokesman this week said Moscow was watching events in Luhansk, but declined to make any further comment.

The two self-proclaimed republics are not recognised by Russia or any other nation. The main rebel stronghold is in Donetsk, while Luhansk is less populous and less industrialised.

Plotnitsky has not released any public statements since giving a news conference on Wednesday. On Thursday, a message was posted on his Internet site saying it had been subject to hacking attacks. There have been unconfirmed Russian media reports that he was in Moscow.

Vladimir Degtyarenko, the speaker of the rebel region’s parliament, issued his own video on Friday backing Pasechnik as the new leader. Kornet, the interior minister fired by Plotnitsky, said in a statement he issued via his ministry’s official web site that he was still in his job.

The tension in Luhansk did not appear to have any direct connection to the conflict between the rebels and the Western-leaning government in Kiev.

Russia denies accusations from Ukraine and NATO that it supports the rebels with troops and weapons.

writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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