SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - A senior rebel commander in Ukraine’s separatist eastern region has threatened an onslaught on Ukrainian military checkpoints if they are not withdrawn on Thursday, according to a video posted on the Facebook page of a rebel politician.
Sergei Zdrilyuk, dressed in military fatigues, clearly tired and sometimes mixing his words, said he had covert groups already in place. “I am ready to draw the first blood myself.”
In the 30-minute video, he moved from military strategy and strengths to problems with a rival fighting unit and, in a reference to his Ukrainian home, troubles with his mother’s flock of geese.
The eastern rebellion by pro-Russian separatists has shaken Ukraine and pushed Western powers into a Cold War-style confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they accuse of destabilizing Ukraine.
Zdrilyuk introduced himself as deputy to Igor Strelkov, appointed head of rebel forces on Monday after the southeastern region of Donetsk held an unofficial referendum that rebels said gave 80 percent support for a break with Kiev. Both are regarded as “terrorists” by Kiev.
The Ukrainian intelligence service SBU showed on its website photographs of him, giving his codenames “Abwehr” (former name of the German military intelligence service) and “Adler” (German for eagle). It described him as a Ukrainian who had taken Russian citizenship in February.
In a possible allusion to tensions between rival groups among the rebels, Zdrilyuk complained about the activity of a “curly-haired man” he identified as an ex-member of the Russian security service FSB. He said the man, going by the nicknames of “Magician” and “Joker”, had a group of 30 armed accomplices.
He said Strelkov, whom Kiev identifies as a Russian military intelligence officer and proof of their contention the rebels are led by Russian special forces, commanded a force of 10,000 fighters and 1,000 armored vehicles. The commander had moved from his stronghold of Slaviansk to the town of Donetsk.
There was no way of verifying his figures. The rebels are an amalgam of trained soldiers and volunteer fighters armed with a mix of automatic rifles, pistols and hunting weapons.
“It doesn’t matter if they (the Ukrainians) are conscripts or professional soldiers,” Zdrilyuk said in what seemed to be a news conference posted on the Facebook page of rebel official Pavel Gubarev.
“If equipment is not withdrawn 20-30 km from Donetsk, all checkpoints will be destroyed; we have heavy guns,” he said. “Our intelligence and covert groups are ready to move and some are already in place.”
Asked what deadline he was setting, he replied: “In 24 hours.” He looked at his watch and added “By nine o’Clock (Thursday evening).”
The rebels have set deadlines on several occasions in the past that have come to nothing. But tensions are running high around the Donetsk region, which has declared itself a separate “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
The Ukrainian checkpoints on main roads and ringing key cities do appear vulnerable and many have been attacked already, some changing hands many times.
Separatists inflicted their biggest casualties yet for any single attack on Tuesday when they killed seven Ukrainian soldiers in an ambush in Kramatorsk. There have been increasing signs of professional leadership among the groups, which nonetheless remain a loosely organized force.
At one sandbagged checkpoint near the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk, Ukrainian Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Prykhodko appeared unconcerned by the deadline. “We are here to protect the peaceful population, maintain law and order and prevent illegal movement of arms and ammunition,” he said.
The Ukrainian intelligence service SBU says Zdrilyuk was fired from their ranks in 2003 because he worked too closely with Russia. It charges that Zdrilyuk and Strelkov were involved in the takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region that led to annexation of the peninsula by Moscow in March.
Zdriluyk often appeared confused and weary during the half-hour video and repeatedly apologized for mixing his words.
“I haven’t slept properly for months; excuse me, for weeks.
“We are not in favor of killing our brothers, no matter what their political opinions. I ask all people of the Ukraine, my soul hurts, it is weeping ...to stop this process. For me it is hard to speak. I wasn’t ready for these events.”
He said he had decided to change his fighting nickname from “Abwehr” to “Spravedlivy”, meaning “the Just One”.
Zdrilyuk’s superior, Strelkov, goes by the nickname “Strelok”, Shooter. Ukrainian intelligence says Strelkov’s real name is Igor Girkin, an officer in the Russian GRU intelligence agency.
Zdrilyuk said some television journalists had visited his mother in a village in central Ukraine and misrepresented her comments about him. They showed her, he said, tending her flock of geese, suggesting they sought to demean her.
Several geese from a flock of 20 had died, he said.
“It was after rain. If you live in a village, you know that young geese are very sensitive creatures,” he said.
Reporting by Natalya Zinets; writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Mark Heinrich