Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-styled people’s mayor of Sloviansk, is rumored to have been detained by the pro-Russia forces that are in control of the city.
Ponomaryov — known for his piercing blue eyes, trademark baseball cap, and sinister gold-tooth smile — had previously worked as the manager of a washing detergent factory.
He was catapulted to power as the people’s mayor of Sloviansk after balaclava-clad rebel gunmen seized the security service and local administration building in the city on April 12.
Since he took control of the city two months ago, Ponomaryov has developed a penchant for throwing those that oppose him into the basement of the city's security service building, which is used as a headquarters by the armed rebels. Among those previously detained by the mayor were VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky and eight officials from the OSCE accused of being spies. A further 40 people are still thought to be held in the below ground prison, where released detainees have reported being beaten and tortured.
This morning, news agency ITAR-TASS reported that an unnamed member of the pro-Russia self-defense forces had said that Ponomaryov had been “dismissed from his post and arrested.”
In response to the report the fledgling rebel republic’s first deputy prime minister, Andrei Purgin, spoke with Interfax Ukraine on the rumors.
"I do not rule out that, under martial-law conditions, Igor Strelkov (the DPR defense minister based in Sloviansk) may have made a decision on some staff reshuffling, not least on the replacement of the people's mayor of Sloviansk,” Purgin said. “However, the leaders of the republic in Donetsk have yet to be notified of this decision."
Later in the day, another statement had been issued by the DPR denying the arrest.
"The information about Vyacheslav's arrest is a lie. At this moment he is at a meeting," the DPR spokesperson told Interfax.
A representative of the DPR’s Prime Minister Aleksander Borodai told VICE News that he could not comment on the matter.
But on Tuesday evening Ponomaryov’s spokesperson Stella Khorosheva told VICE News that she was still been unable to make contact with him, and that he was last seen at 10PM on Monday night.
While she did not dismiss that he may be “busy,” she also said that his “absence is shocking myself and the DPR. We don't know where he is.”
Russian media outlet Life News also reported that Ponomaryov’s tearful mother did not know the whereabouts of her son. And notably the pro-Kremlin outlet shifted from calling Ponomaryov the “people’s mayor” to the “self-declared mayor.”
However, mobile phone coverage inside the city and some surrounding areas has been down for a number of days, and the possibility that Ponomaryov may have just dropped out of contact cannot be ruled out.
Other reports claimed that rebel commanders had stated that the people’s mayor was away on an operation to reconstruct lights on the outskirts of the city, which has been without electricity and water for several days following damage to infrastructure caused by heavy shelling.
This is not the first time that the rebel leader has been reported as detained by his own forces. Previous claims have proved to be false.
Yet there have long been rumors of a rift between the so-called people’s mayor and the political authorities of the rebel republic, who are based in Donetsk. Speaking to reporters last month, Ponomaryov claimed that “Sloviansk is the capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic.” At the same press conference, he also complained that the DPR’s leaders didn’t speak to him anymore, but he didn't need them anyway.
Valery, a rebel commander in Sloviansk, told VICE News that the only person they took orders from was Igor Strelkov, the defense minister of the republic who commands the pro-Russia militias operating in the city and surrounding region.
Fierce fighting between the pro-Russia fighters holding Sloviansk and the Ukrainian military, which is in the second month of a Kiev-backed anti-terrorism operation aimed at dislodging the rebels from their stronghold, has forced tens of thousands of citizens to flee Sloviansk. The city has a population of nearly 130,000.
Following the inauguration of Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday there has been a tentative hope that peace negotiations opened with Russia on June 8 might lead to a de-escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine.
However, the rebel leaders, who are terrorists in the eyes of Kiev, have not been included in the talks. In his inauguration speech on Saturday, Poroshenko ruled out the possibility of negotiating with the rebels’ leaders who he called “evil creatures” with “the blood of the Ukrainian military and civilians on their hands.”
In response to the Poroshenko’s speech, Ponomaryov called the new president, who has substantial investments in the confectionary industry, a “chocolate faggot” and an “ambassador of the devil.”
“There is nothing to talk about,” he said, in reference to the possibility of negotiations. “If I had the chance I would beat his fucking ugly mug.”