Rebel commander 'killed in eastern Ukraine'

Pro-Russian separatists ride tanks in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on February 21, 2015 (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - A separatist commander in eastern Ukraine was killed along with several other fighters after their car came under attack Saturday, rebel authorities announced.

The defence ministry of the self-proclaimed Lugansk republic confirmed that Alexey Mozgovoy, the commander of a police battalion in the war-torn region, was among the dead and said it was hunting for the assailants behind the attack.

The incident happened around 1500 GMT near the town of Alchevsk, some 40 kilometres (27 miles) from Lugansk, the official press agency of the self-declared republic said in a statement.

"According to the preliminary information, the vehicle carrying Mozgovoy was hit by a bomb and then by machine-gun fire," it said.

"There are seven dead in total," deputy Lugansk prosecutor Sergei Gorenko said at a press conference broadcast by Russian media, though he stressed that the toll was based on early information and could still change.

"One of the lines of inquiry is that it was an act of sabotage by a group of spies," he added.

Mozgovoy was the well-known leader of the so-called Prizrak (Ghost) brigade that has taken part in some of the heaviest battles in Ukraine's pro-Russian east since the start of the conflict last year.

In December, the United States added his name to a list of people subject to sanctions for their involvement in the crisis, which has left more than 6,200 people dead so far.

A leader of the neighbouring separatist region of Donetsk, Andrei Purgin, told Russian news agencies that he wanted to see a speedy investigation, warning that Kiev would "use the situation... to pour oil on the fire".

A shaky European-brokered ceasefire agreed in February has largely held despite sporadic flare-ups of fighting in the east.

According to a daily toll update by the Ukrainian army on Saturday, one soldier was killed and five others injured in the conflict zone over the past 24 hours.

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