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Eastern Ukraine councilman mourned as a hero who met a gruesome end

HORLIVKA, Ukraine — Yelena Rybak sat quietly next to her husband for an hour under their carport, alone and for the last time. She touched his battered face and stroked his cold hands, as if the warmth of her fingers might still wake him.

Then it was time for the young, bearded priest, who arrived with several dozen relatives, friends and sympathizers. They escorted Yelena and 42-year-old Volodymyr from the gray-brick house through a wooden fence and onto a narrow street of buckling pavement. Cherry trees were blossoming pink and white, and lilacs just beginning to bloom.

The half-mile procession led to a caravan of buses and cars taking Volodymyr Rybak to a cemetery that would be his final resting place, near a rusting elevated pipeline that disappeared far into the distance.

When Rybak was laid in his grave, the crowd chanted, "Glory to the hero!"

Rybak was a city council member loyal to the Kiev government in an area beset by pro-Russia separatism. His body was found Monday miles from Horlivka. His wife said he had numerous bruises, stab wounds, a broken jaw and missing teeth. His belly had been slit with a knife.

He disappeared April 17 after facing down a furious pro-Russia crowd that had stormed the mayor's office and raised the Russian flag. Rybak, a tough former cop, climbed onto the roof, tore it down and threw it into the crowd. In its place, he hoisted Ukraine's blue-and-yellow national banner.

Ukrainian officials said Thursday that they had audio recordings and a transcript of intercepted telephone conversations that implicated at least one local separatist leader and Russian intelligence operatives in Rybak's death.

Elsewhere, the conflict was continuing. Ukrainian forces and the separatists clashed in at least three places Thursday, and Ukrainian officials said five separatists were killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the Ukrainian government's military action in televised comments.

"If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people, this is clearly a grave crime," he said. "Of course, this will have consequences for the people who take such decisions, and this also affects our interstate relations."

Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, called new military exercises along the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian officials demanded an explanation and urged the West to impose tough new sanctions on Russia for sponsoring the separatists.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry denounced Russia for failing to live up to an agreement reached in Geneva a week ago to calm tension.

Russia has chosen "an illegal course of armed violence to try to achieve with the barrel of a gun and the force of a mob what could not be achieved in any other way," he said. "This is a full-throated effort to actively sabotage the democratic process.

"If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake," he said.

Rybak's friends and family were equally blunt, and angry, about what happened.

"It was a political murder," said Yelena, 49, a gynecologist. "They wanted to demonstrate what awaits anyone who is not scared to fight against separatism and for united Ukraine."

"These separatists are shouting all the time about nationalists and fascists in [Ukraine's] west," said his sister, Olga Lezhnina. "But the real fascists are not in the west; they are here! Who else could have done that to him?"

Andriy Grishchenko, Horlivka's police chief, towered a head above the rest of the mourners. His broad face was bruised, and two ugly wounds had been stitched closed.

Grishchenko came to his former colleague's funeral directly from a hospital bed where he had been recuperating from a concussion suffered at the hands of a pro-Russia mob that captured the police station April 14.

Grishchenko said he had removed all firearms from the station a day earlier. His officers were still controlling most of the town except the police station and the city administration building. And they were investigating Rybak's death.

"We will find the scum," he said. "And we will find a way to free the buildings in town from young hoodlums who seized and are holding them for money paid by their separatist leadership."

Ukraine's Security Service said the intercepted telephone conversations included two Russian military intelligence officers it identified as Igor Strelkov and Igor Bezler, as well as Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, a separatist stronghold about 50 miles from Horlivka.

In one recording, a man identified as Bezler is giving a command about Rybak to an agent called Alf: "Rough him up, put him in your car and take him away somewhere. Then when you come to a stop, tell me where I can catch up with you."

In another conversation, an agent identified as Strelkov gives instructions to a man identified as Ponomaryov about disposing Rybak's body: "Listen, Slava. You resolve the issue with the stiff so it can be dragged away from us as soon as possible."

"I am now going to quickly deal with burying this rooster," he replies.

Rybak's body and that of an unidentified man were found on a riverbank near Slovyansk, Yelena said.

Ukrainian officials said Strelkov and Bezler had led armed attacks on government buildings in Slovyansk and were still at large.

The country's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said in a statement that Ukrainian forces were continuing an anti-terrorism operation in eastern Ukraine.

"At the same time," he charged, "the Russian Federation is coordinating and openly supporting terrorist murderers, acting with arms in their hands in the east of our country."

Security forces recaptured the mayor's office in Mariupol on Thursday without casualties and repelled an attack on a military unit in the town of Artemivsk, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.

The Interior Ministry also reported that Ukrainian forces attacked two separatist checkpoints Thursday morning on the outskirts of Slovyansk and that five separatists were killed. The separatists, however, regained one smoldering checkpoint after soldiers retreated, and later they were rebuilding the barricades.

Schools and hospitals were closed in Slovyansk, and few people were on the street. Armed separatists told residents through loudspeakers to stay inside because an attack was imminent.

Masked gunmen moved in small groups or sat in ambush with firearms at the ready. No attack came.

Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor, said only one man was killed and one wounded in the fighting at the checkpoints. "We have plenty of firearms and can hold off such attacks indefinitely," he said by telephone. He denied any involvement with Rybak's death.

An American journalist, Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News, who was being held by separatists in Slovyansk, was freed Thursday. It was unclear whether separatists released any of the nine other people they said they were holding.

"I can't believe this is really happening in my hometown," said Dmitry Kozhikhin, 35, a truck driver. "At first many of our townsfolk welcomed the self-defense gunmen as liberators, but now they are all scared and would rather see them go away."

Volodymyr Derkach, 62, a former miner in Horlivka, also mourned what had happened to his town as he tossed a handful of dirt on Rybak's casket.

"I have never asked myself what nationality Volodya was, Russian or Ukrainian, because it doesn't make a difference here," he said.

"It is not about Russians against Ukrainians. It is not about Russia against Ukraine. It is about good guys like him and us against bad guys. And Putin is unfortunately on the side of the bad guys down here."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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