Ukraine rebels bury dead who fell hours before ceasefire

Nicolas Miletitch
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Pro-Russian separatists and relatives attend a religious service of several rebels at their military base in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015

Pro-Russian separatists and relatives attend a religious service of several rebels at their military base in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - After the coffins of four pro-Russian fighters killed hours before the Ukrainian ceasefire were lowered into the ground on Monday in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, their comrades fired Kalashnikov rifles into the icy air in a final salute.

The field was already studded with dozens of graves of men killed in 10 months of conflict, some marked with orthodox crosses and others with just a number as the fighter who lies there is unidentified.

On Monday, Georgy Lubenik, just 19, was buried alongside three other rebels who died in ferocious fighting around the key east Ukraine town of Debaltseve.

"They died in Logvinove, a village close to Debaltseve," said the unit's commander, giving his nickname "Hunter".

"It was during the night, a few hours before the ceasefire started on February 15. Our group was hit by a salvo of Uragan rockets fired by the Ukrainian army," the 46-year-old insurgent said.

Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub linking the two rebel centres of Donetsk and Lugansk, has been the epicentre of fierce fighting between the separatists and government forces for weeks.

Despite the start of a ceasefire at midnight on Saturday, shelling has continued unabated in Debaltseve as rebels say they have surrounded thousands of Ukrainian troops.

"It's a miracle that I am still alive," said Hunter, claiming to be the commander of a military intelligence unit. "For two days we came under constant fire."

- Walking wounded come to mourn -

About 100 separatist fighters gathered at a military base in their stronghold Donetsk to bid farewell to their fallen comrades.

Some of them were wounded, with their heads bound in bandages. Others walked with the aid of crutches.

The coffins sat on empty ammunition crates in a room that had been converted into a chapel with two icons leaning on the wall.

A rebel in a military uniform assisted an orthodox priest as he gave the service for the dead together with a nun.

The soldiers, guns slung on their soldiers, marched into the chapel and saluted before the fallen. They then laid red carnations on the dead men's coffins.

"Three of them were from Donetsk. The fourth was a volunteer from Sakhalin (far-east Russia)," said Mikhail Shestyakov, 47, adding that he himself had come from the Siberian town of Irkutsk to fight with the rebels.

All those at the funeral agreed that the fighting around Debaltseve was extremely vicious and that the Ukrainian forces -- who are practically surrounded -- resisted fiercely.

The clashes that cut short Lubenik's young life and those of his comrades came during several bloody days of heavy fighting.

"We were on the road from Logvinove to Debaltseve. In three days our unit and a Cossack battalion that was supporting us lost 30 men and had many wounded," said a fighter nicknamed Khort.

After the funeral service finished a dozen cars carried the coffins to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city where a section has been reserved for the rebel dead.

Some 50 insurgents stood in the icy cold as the dead fighters were lowered into their final resting place.