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Ukraine rebel leader sworn in

The leader of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine has been officially sworn in after an election that was roundly condemned by the West as destabilising.

Alexander Zakharchenko was inaugurated in a heavily guarded theatre in the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

His election was largely a formality as no viable candidates opposed him, but separatist authorities have held up the vote as a mandate to pursue their secessionist goals.

Ukraine and Western governments say the polls gravely endangered a ceasefire agreed in early September. Although fighting eased after the truce, hostilities have continued almost daily.

The ceasefire agreement was signed by rebel leaders, and Ukrainian and Russian officials envisioned local elections being held across the whole of the east, but under Ukrainian law.

Mr Zakharchenko took the stage after four sabre-wielding Cossacks carried in the flag of what separatists call the Donetsk People's Republic. He swore the oath of office with his hand on a Bible to applause and whistles from audience members - many of them in combat fatigues carrying automatic rifles.

Politicians from Russia and Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia, whose independence is recognised only by Russia and three other countries, later mounted the stage. Russian lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlev congratulated Mr Zakharchenko, declaring: "Russia doesn't give up on its own."

Post-inauguration entertainment included a traditional Russian dance troupe led by a performer in a bear suit.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, underlining her displeasure over what she said was Russia's role in the conflict, said there is no reason yet to lift European Union sanctions against Moscow.

Ms Merkel said she hopes for a diplomatic solution to Ukraine's crisis but added the vote shows "how difficult it is even to maintain agreements that have been made, if we look at the illegal elections".

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