Mikhail Tolstykh, a top commander of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s breakaway east region of Donbas better known by his nom de guerre Givi, was killed in an explosion early on Wednesday at his office in Donetsk, the stronghold of regional militants that have for three years battled with government forces.

Citing preliminary results of an investigation, separatist leaders in the city said in a Russian language statement posted on the main website of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic that the Somali battalion commander was killed when his office was fired upon by a Russian-made Shmel portable rocket launcher.

Russia’s Life news website posted video from the scene showing a body covered by a blanket lying on a stretcher in the charred and burned out office of Mr Tolstykh.

Describing the development as “murder by terrorist act,” separatists accused Ukrainian authorities of orchestrating the assassination. Officials in Kiev, which has accused Mr Tolstykh of committing war crimes against government soldiers, denied involvement in the act, which follows the biggest flare-up of fighting in the three-year undeclared war in nearly two years.

Mr Tolstykh joins a growing list of separatist commanders that have been killed in mysterious assassination styled hits since late 2015.

Late last month, Valery Bolotov, a former leader of Lugansk based separatists died unexpectedly in Moscow from what his wife reportedly described as a poisoning. In October, a Muscovite leading the Donetsk-based fighting battalion called Sparta and a close friend of Mr Tolstykh’s was blown up while entering the elevator of his flat.

Some Ukrainian officials and observers have linked the deaths to conflicts over lucrative smuggling and control over cash flow in breakaway regions of Ukraine’s industrial east; others have hinted at involvement of Russian security forces as part of “clean-up” operation to install more controlled figures in the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

In comments published by Interfax news agency on Wednesday, Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for Russian president Vladimir Putin, flatly denied possible Russian involvement.

Mr Peskov said:

We for sure absolutely deny accusations in the direction of the Russian Federation of possible involvement. This cannot be the case. Clearly this is an attempt to destabilize the situation in Donbas.

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