September 7, 2015 / 8:22 PM / 3 years ago

East Ukraine rebels arrest leader amid infighting

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A leader of Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine, Andrei Purgin, has been detained by fellow-rebels in a power struggle as the breakaway region prepares to hold its own elections.

A Purgin ally and a source with the rebel security forces told Reuters he was arrested on Friday, the day he was also dismissed as the head of the separatist parliament, near the rebel stronghold of Donetsk after returning from Russia.

“Andrei Yevgenyevich (Purgin) was arrested along with his wife. They were put in a car ... We were told that they are under arrest,” said Ellada Shaftner, a member of the rebel parliament who had been travelling with Purgin and was present at the scene.

The rebel security service source said Purgin and his wife were being interrogated. “If he is detained, it means there is a reason,” the source said.

The spokeswoman for top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko declined to comment. Purgin’s mobile phone has been turned off since Friday.

A former head of the rebel parliament’s administration was also dismissed and was now wanted by rebel security forces, said Denis Pushilin, who has taken over as the head of the separatist Donetsk parliament.

Purgin has been a prominent member of the rebel leadership since separatist unrest erupted in the industrial, Russian-speaking east Ukraine in April, 2014. He has been a rebel representative in peace talks involving France and Germany.

Moscow, Kiev, Berlin and Paris called for a truce in east Ukraine from Sept. 1 and the region has been relatively calm in recent days.

The conflict has killed more than 6,500 people in a year and a half.

Ukraine is due to hold regional elections on Oct. 25. Donetsk rebels and their fellow separatists in neighbouring Luhansk said they would hold their own votes on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1, respectively, drawing protests from Kiev.

“Purgin was exceptionally independent and had his own political line,” said the former head of the rebels’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, who is a Russian citizen.

Purgin used to be a deputy to Borodai, who moved back to Moscow last summer as Zakharchenko took over in Donetsk.

There was no immediate comment on the developments from Moscow, which sides with the rebels but denies sending them arms or serving Russian troops.

The United States and the European Union slapped sanctions on Russia over the conflict, which dragged ties between Moscow and the West to post-Cold War lows.

Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Andrew Roche

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