Ukraine crisis: Key players in eastern unrest

The devastating crash of a Malaysian Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine, which the US says was downed by a missile fired from a rebel-held area, has brought to the fore again the war being fought there by pro-Russian separatist rebels.

Here we profile some of the key figures involved on both sides of the conflict which erupted in April when the separatists declared independence from the revolutionary government in Kiev.

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Strelkov - rebel commander
Igor "Strelkov" Girkin in Donetsk, 10 July

Commonly known by his nom-de-guerre Strelkov (which translates loosely from Russian as "Rifleman"), Igor Girkin is one of the most effective military commanders the rebels have.

With a background in the Russian military, including service in Chechnya, Serbia and Trans-Dniester, a self-proclaimed republic on the territory of Moldova, the Russian citizen commanded rebel forces in their symbolic stronghold of Sloviansk before retreating with his men to Donetsk. He says he was a reserve colonel in the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, until 31 March last year.

He is considered to be the commander-in-chief of both the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People's republic (LPR). The EU believes he works for Russian military intelligence (the GRU), and has placed him under sanctions.

However, he has not been afraid to criticise Moscow, which he reproaches for failing to intervene directly in the conflict.

Shortly before news emerged that Flight MH17 had disappeared, a statement attributed to Strelkov (later deleted) appeared on Russian-language social media boasting that a Ukrainian army cargo plane had been shot down. However, the only wreckage reported on 17 July was that of the Malaysian airliner.

Strelkov, born in 1970, is said to be a military enthusiast who specialises in historical re-enactment and staged recreations of battles.

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Igor Bezler and Alexander Khodakovsky - Donetsk rebel commanders

Igor Bezler is a prominent commander in charge of Horlivka, a city of 300,000 people north-east of Donetsk. Born in Simferopol in Crimea, he has a Russian military background and says he has both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship. He has refused to confirm or deny serving in both Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Known as Bes (Demon), his voice was identified by Ukrainian security services in a series of phone intercepts which they say proved that MH17 had been shot down by the separatists. US officials say they have verified the calls.

Alexander Khodakovsky (file pic) Alexander Khodakovsky is described as a defector from Ukraine's SBU

Alexander Khodakovsky is the leader of the rebel Vostok (East) battalion based in the city of Makiyivka. He is considered a defector from Ukraine's SBU security service and was once in charge of an elite counter-terrorism squad, the Alpha unit.

Phone intercepts have linked him to attempts to stop the Malaysia Airlines plane's "black box" flight recorders getting into the hands of investigators. A voice said to be his says he is acting under orders from "our high-placed friends... in Moscow".

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Alexander Borodai - Donetsk rebel politician
Alexander Borodai surrounded by bodyguards at the crash site in east Ukraine, 17 July

The prime minister of the DPR is a Russian citizen from Moscow who describes himself as a professional consultant who got involved in east Ukraine as a volunteer.

After visiting the Malaysia Airlines crash site, he suggested the plane had been downed by the Ukrainian air force.

Before coming to Donetsk, he says he worked as a "political strategist" in Crimea, reportedly for the pro-Russian rebel leadership there. In the past, he worked in Trans-Dniester in 1992, and in Chechnya in 1996. He is alleged to be an operative for GRU, Russia's military intelligence. Russian media reports link him to FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service.

He tries to bat off allegations that he is working for the Russian security services. "Even if I were, do you think I'd answer?" he once told reporters.

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Valeriy Bolotov - Luhansk rebel leader
Valeriy Bolotov

The self-declared "people's governor" of the Luhansk region was a key player in forming militia units and the storming of the local security service building.

A former paratrooper, he is in his 40s.

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Pavel Gubarev - rebel figure
Pavel Gubarev (5 March 2014)

The self-styled "people's governor" of the DPR was released from custody in Kiev on 7 May in exchange for three Ukrainian security service (SBU) officers held by pro-Russian militants in Sloviansk.

He had faced charges of separatism and seizure of public buildings.

The 31-year-old founder of an advertising company is a former Donetsk district council member from the fiercely pro-Russian Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine.

He emerged from obscurity soon after the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in February and led the occupation of the regional administration building by hundreds of pro-Russian activists.

After his supporters were evicted from the building by police, Mr Gubarev was detained by Ukrainian security service officers.

Photographs have been published on the internet indicating that he was an activist of the ultra-nationalist movement Russian National Unity in the past.

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Ihor Kolomoisky - Dnipropetrovsk governor
Ihor Kolomoisky (right) and Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk (left) and Ihor Kolomoisky

One of Ukraine's richest oligarchs has been in charge of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region since March.

Despite the initial controversy surrounding the appointment, the 51-year-old is now widely credited with keeping the region with a large Russian-speaking population stable and largely violence-free.

He famously offered a $10,000 bounty to anyone who captured any Russian soldier on Ukrainian soil. He also promised to pay $1,000 for each machine-gun handed over to the authorities.

In addition, Mr Kolomoisky offered - and on at least one occasion paid - significant financial rewards to Ukrainian troops who had successfully repelled attacks by separatists.

In retaliation, pro-Russian militants in the neighbouring Donetsk region have attacked and ransacked branches of PrivatBank, which are owned by Mr Kolomoisky.

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Rinat Akhmetov - Ukraine's richest person
Rinat Akhmetov

After months apparently sitting on the fence, he threw his considerable resources behind a united Ukraine and against the separatists, who he says are threatening a "genocide".

The 47-year-old, whose fortune is estimated at more than $11bn (£6.5bn), is one of the most influential people in the Donbass - a historical region including the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - where the insurgency is at its peak.

He has as many as 300,000 people employed in his coal and steel enterprises across the region, according to Reuters news agency, and it is this workforce which he has shown he is willing to use as leverage.

He called on his workers to lead the resistance to the separatists, by staging peaceful rallies daily. Rebels were driven back in the southern city of Mariupol as a result.

Mr Akhmetov's allegiance had previously been unclear, since he was a close confidant of former President Viktor Yanukovych, and has business links with Russia.

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Serhiy Taruta - Donetsk governor
Serhiy Taruta

One of the Ukrainian government's key figures in the east, he was appointed governor of the Donetsk region in order to assert its authority and quell the protests in the area.

He claims he never wanted to be a state governor. He is one of the founders of the transnational metallurgical corporation ISD.

Forbes Ukraine lists him among the wealthiest citizens of the country, estimating his fortune at $697m (£415m; 500m euros).

He says the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his close allies, who fled the country in February, play a crucial role in the separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Ukrainian activists have repeatedly accused him of not doing enough to tackle the separatists in the region.

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