SLAVYANSK, Ukraine: Pro-Russian rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine on Friday tapped a man authorities in Kiev suspect is a colonel in the Russian security services to lead their insurgency.
Igor Strelkov, currently heading the militants in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk, has been "put forward" to become "the commander of all self-defence forces in (the region of) Donbass," said the self-proclaimed governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Gubarev.
Gubarev was addressing a large crowd in Slavyansk, which has become the epicentre of rebel activity, as the town of more than 110,000 marked the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Strelkov, 43, is known to the Ukrainian secret service as Russian GRU colonel Igor Girkin who lives in Moscow. He denies this.
He was linked to the capture and detention of seven OSCE monitors in Slavyansk who were eventually released after an eight-day ordeal following intervention from Moscow.
Kiev has published what it says are intercepted conversations between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy Vladimir Lukin talking about the officers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
According to Ukrainian secret services, Strelkov travelled to Simferopol in Crimea in February, just before it was annexed by Moscow.
In an interview given recently to a Russian tabloid, he said he "didn't want to stop at Donetsk".
"We want to liberate Ukraine from the fascists," he said, describing the former Soviet Republic as a failed state and judging that the international community wouldn't "start World War III over it".