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New separatist leader appointed after 'coup' in eastern Ukraine

Separatist legislators in eastern Ukraine have appointed an interim chief to replace their beleaguered leader in an apparent palace coup.

The resignation of the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, was announced by Leonid Pasechnik, his long-time foe and minister of state security.

The separatist Luhansk Information Centre reported on Saturday that the local legislature voted unanimously to accept Mr Plotnitsky's resignation and make Mr Pasechnik interim chief.

Mr Plotnitsky's resignation ended a nearly week-long showdown between the separatist leader and the ousted interior minister, who had summoned troops in defiance of his sacking.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in a long-simmering conflict between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

The region has also been plagued with infighting between various warlords.

Mr Pasechnik announced on Friday that Mr Plotnitsky had resigned on health grounds and that he would be the acting chief until an election is called.

The regional capital Luhansk has been plagued with infighting between various armed groups. Political and military leaders have been unseated and died in suspicious circumstances.

Pressure mounted on Mr Plotnitsky earlier this week after he fired interior minister Igor Kornet. The influential minister refused to resign, enlisting help from separatists in the neighbouring Donetsk region to defy Mr Plotnitsky's order.

Dozens of armed people loyal to Mr Kornet blocked access to the main administrative buildings in Luhansk on Tuesday, and a convoy of armed vehicles entered the city in the middle of the night in a show of support.

Mr Plotnitsky accused Mr Kornet of trying to unseat him, while Mr Kornet hit back, suggesting in a televised statement that "the republic's leadership" was under the influence of Ukrainian spies.

Mr Plotnitsky has not appeared in public since Wednesday and has not commented on the reported resignation. The 53-year old former Ukrainian bureaucrat was spotted arriving at a Russian airport on Thursday with a carry-on bag.

He was one of the signatories of a 2015 truce between the separatists and Ukraine, brokered by Russia, France and Germany, which helped to reduce the scale of fighting but did not stop it altogether.

In comments carried by Luhansk Information Centre, Mr Pasechnik said he was committed to the truce.

Several high-profile commanders have been killed in the Luhansk region in suspicious circumstances - including car bomb attacks - in recent years in what is widely viewed as a power struggle.

In their absence, the leadership of the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came to be dominated by bureaucrats with ties to ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

The rebels originally sought to join Russia but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicising its military support for the rebels. It is widely assumed that Moscow provides the rebels with weapons and funding.

AP

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