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'These are not soldiers, they are just boys trying to be heroes'

ON Thursday morning, Vladimir Lubenets heard a short burst of gunfire near his home on the outskirts of rebel-controlled Slavyansk and tried desperately to contact his son, Aleksandr.

"I phoned everyone, and eventually someone told me: 'I'm sorry, the boy is gone'."

Between sobs, the distraught father said his son was shot in the back just a few days before his 22nd birthday.

The death is one in a spate of killings that have rippled across eastern Ukraine as armed pro-Russian rebels have seized buildings and the army has made attempts to re-assert control.

Last week, two bodies bearing signs of torture were pulled out of a river near Slavyansk. One was identified as local pro-Ukraine councillor, Volodymyr Rybak, the other remains unidentified.

On Easter Sunday, two rebels were gunned down at a checkpoint on the edge of the city.

Like many young men in Slavyansk and neighbouring villages, Aleksandr Lubenets had signed up to the local self-defence guard to oppose what many locals believe is a fascist administration in Kiev that removed Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, with the connivance of the West.

Mr Lubenets insisted that his son was not a soldier. "He just loved his motherland," he said. "He was a good person, very cheerful, very funny, who loved life."

Since the militia took hold of Slavyansk two weeks ago, automatic weapons, pistols and sawn-off shotguns have become a common sight on the streets, which the separatists claim is besieged by Ukrainian forces and at risk of attack.

It is these balaclava-clad men who consoled Mr Lubenets.

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Shaking his hand and patting him on the back, the armed rebels lurked in the background smoking cigarettes, before accompanying the grieving father to an appointment with the city's self-appointed "people's mayor", Viacheslav Ponomariov.

The precise chain of events leading up to the shooting of Aleksandr Lubenets is unclear.

According to Yevgeniy, the young man's commander, he was working as a lookout at a bus stop with two other men, when a black off-road vehicle arrived.

According to villagers, gunfire echoed through the streets for about 40 minutes. The young man's body was found later when the smoke had cleared.

Ukraine's counter-terrorism operation, launched on Wednesday, has fuelled fear, paranoia and anger among the local population; however, its hesitancy seems only to have buoyed resistance.

Yevgeniy vowed there would be revenge for the assault.

"We will line the road with their bodies," said the camouflage-clad commander.

"These were just boys trying to be heroes." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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