Kiev: Ukraine`s pro-Russian rebels rushed Sunday to dispel speculation that a bloody internal battle for control of Moscow`s money was behind the gangland-style slaying of a top warlord.
Prizrak (Ghost) brigade commander Alexei Mozgovoi and at least six others -- including his press secretary and armed guards -- were shot dead Saturday while travelling in the renegade eastern province of Lugansk, a region under effective rebel control.
Separatist officials said his convoy of at least two vehicles was first struck by a bomb. The survivors were then mowed down in a hail of bullets near the spot where Mozgovoi survived another assassination attempt in March.
Defence officials in Kiev have said little about the incident and taken no formal credit for organising the attack.
But Mozgovoi was long believed to have run afoul of Lugansk`s self-proclaimed leader Igor Plotnitsky and key officials in the Kremlin.
He was adamantly opposed to the terms of a February truce deal that has stemmed some of the deadliest fighting with government forces and opened the way for limited self-rule in rebel-held areas.
Mozgovoi was also placed on a US blacklist for reportedly organising a summary court system that is believed to have seen dozens executed for either backing Kiev or practising Western lifestyles.
Plotnitsky called the assassination "an attack on all of us -- people who defend the right for the (separatist region) to exist".
"I mourn together with all those who knew Alexei Borisovich Mozgovoi and those who walked this journey together with him," Plotnitsky told his administration`s official website.
Lugansk`s deputy prosecutor Sergei Gorenko said initial findings pointed to the involvement of a pro-Kiev "sabotage force".
The region`s pro-Russian police chief Sergei Kozlov added that his force had recently noted increased activity by Ukrainian "reconnaissance and sabotage units".
Several insurgent commanders have been shot dead under mysterious circumstances in recent months.
Moscow resolutely denies backing the guerrillas with arms and funding. It says Russians who have taken part in the insurgency that has claimed nearly 6,300 lives in 13 months are "volunteers", who never received formal orders to join the campaign.