A week before he died, Aleksey Mozgovoi was dismissive about threats to his life. “They wouldn’t risk making anybody a hero,” he told The Independent. Those would be his last words on the subject. Seven days after his last interview, on Saturday at about 5.30pm local time, the outspoken rebel commander was assassinated in a hail of gunfire.
Mr Mozgovoi could not have failed to understand the dangers he was facing. Barely two months earlier, he survived an almost identical ambush on the Alchevsk-Luhansk highway just outside the village of Mikhailovka – almost the same spot where he would eventually meet his end. Then, Mr Mozgovoi escaped with minor shrapnel wounds: the directional mines used in the attack were too far from the road to cause serious injury. Mr Mozgovoi had described receiving death threats from “corrupt” people connected to the “feeding trough” of humanitarian aid. But he had always declined to name names.
Directional mines were again believed to be at play when he died. Investigators working at the scene told The Independent that they had found craters from mines as well as spent shells consistent with machine-gun and Kalashnikov fire. A trail of blood, glass and tyre tracks left no doubt as to the terror of Mr Mozgovoi’s final seconds. Six others were believed to have died in the attack, including Mr Mozgovoi’s press secretary and three civilians.
Authorities of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” have been quick to push a theory that subversive groups loyal to Kiev were responsible for the assassination. This has also become the official position of the acting commander of Mr Mozgovoi’s “Ghost” battalion, Yuri Shevchenko. “I believe that in the context of war, it is criminal to put forward other versions,” he told The Independent.
Another soldier on the highway, going by the nom-de-guerre of “Tiny”, said he did not believe Ukrainians had the capacity to launch such an elaborate attack deep inside rebel-controlled territory.
The Luhansk official press service issued a statement saying that the assassination of Mr Mozgovoi had been designed to “undermine the union between Alchevsk and Luhansk”.
It is well known that Mr Mozgovoi had difficult relations with the Russian-annointed leaders in the region. Separatist leaders in Luhansk, for their part, have made little secret that they considered Mr Mozgovoi to be an exasperating partner. After the removal of other outspoken leaders, Mr Mozgovoi had also become the most visible. In January, Alexander Bednov, commander of “Batman” battalion, a unit with strong Russian links, was killed in Luhansk under suspicious circumstances. Later, another field commander, Cossack leader Nikolai Kositsyn, was sent back to his native Russia.
Yesterday, as the soldiers of Ghost battalion gathered around the Alchevsk security services building that Mr Mozgovoi had made his home, they mumbled about their shock at their commander’s death. Some had been drinking heavily through the night. Deputy Commander Androsov said he had lost a “father figure”. He said: “Aleksey changed me. Before, I always thought about myself, but now I think about the people.” Mr Androsov revealed that some soldiers had found Mr Mozgovoi’s methods “too severe” and had deserted. The people who remained in the battalion were hardcore “idealists”, he said.
Among the three civilian victims of Saturday’s attack was Yakov Tarakai, 37, and his heavily pregnant wife. Yakov’s mother, Raisa Tarakai, had also made her way to the gathering outside the Alchevsk security services building. Dressed in a black headscarf, Mrs Tarakai said her family had been against the war. “Everyone thinks we’re separatists, we’re rebels, but we’re peaceful people, and we just don’t want our kids to die,” she sobbed. “I just can’t imagine that I won’t be seeing Yasha again.”
Several of the soldiers were in tears. “Mother, forgive us, it’s war”, one said. “I can’t imagine that I won’t be able to go upstairs to see my commander,” added an emotional Mr Androsov, who promised that the battalion would cover funeral costs for the pensioner.
Unhappy with the suggestion of burying her son in military uniform, Mrs Tarakai eventually managed to persuade the deputy commander to buy him a proper suit. “He was a young man and he hadn’t prepared for his funeral,” she said.
Many now assume the future of Mr Mozgovoi’s battalion to be under threat following his assassination. Such a development would follow the example of Mr Bednov’s Batman battalion, which was quietly dissolved following his death. But representatives of the Ghost battalion said it would continue under a new commander, but they did not seem overly confident.
By 6pm last night, a crowd of about 600 soldiers and locals had gathered at the main square in Alchevsk, a town north-east of Donestsk, to mark the passing of a man who had become an unlikely local celebrity. They were treated to a reading of Mr Mozgovoi’s own, eerily appropriate poetry.
It’s not so bad to die in May
It’s easy to dig the grave
Nightingales will sing
For the last time –
And with it, an era seemed to pass.
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