MOSCOW - A separatist leader in Ukraine's east on Thursday accused a former official of trying to unseat him as a showdown between the two entered its third day.
Breaking almost a week of silence, Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, claimed that former Interior Minister Igor Kornet "tried to seize power by force."
"It seems that a small man harbored big ambitions," Plotnitsky said on the separatist television station, adding that he intended to "resolve the conflict with the help of the law."
More than 10,000 people have been killed and a million displaced in a long-simmering conflict between separatists in Luhansk and in parts of the neighboring Donetsk region since 2014. Parts of the two regions have been under separatist control since spring 2014, and the area has been plagued with infighting among various armed groups and warlords.
Several high-profile commanders have been killed in the region in suspicious circumstances in what was widely viewed as power struggle. While the unruly commanders were dying in car bombings, 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 showdown between Plotnitsky and Kornet began on Tuesday with dozens of armed people loyal to Kornet surrounding the main administrative buildings in the regional capital, Luhansk. A convoy of armed vehicles entered the city in the middle of the night in a show of support for Kornet.
In a video released on Thursday, the ousted interior minister lashed out at Plotnitsky, suggesting that "the republic's leadership" was under the influence of Ukrainian spies. Kornet also acknowledged that he was receiving military support from the neighboring separatist Donetsk People's Republic.
The rebels originally sought to join Russia but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicizing its military support for the rebels. It is widely assumed that Moscow provides the rebels with weapons and funding.