KYIV, Ukraine — “If I want to, I kill. If not, I don’t.”
That’s part of the cold, startling alleged confession of an infamous separatist commander in eastern Ukraine. This week he reportedly admitted to the Kyiv Post newspaper that he personally executed more than a dozen Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Arseniy Pavlov, better known by his nom de guerre “Motorola,” is one of many Russian volunteers who have flocked to eastern Ukraine in the past year to join the Moscow-backed insurgency against Ukrainian government forces.
He's gained a cult following among rebel sympathizers in Ukraine and Russia, and has featured as a star in Russian state media.
His exploits include leading the seizure earlier this year of the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, and even staging a high-profile wartime wedding last summer with a local Ukrainian insurgent.
More recently, Pavlov has been implicated in the late January killing of a Ukrainian prisoner, whom eyewitnesses said was shot by the rebel commander instead of being given medical assistance.
His response to the allegation, amid a flurry of obscenities, is what led to the alarming revelation.
“I don’t give a f***k about what I am accused of, believe it or not,” he said, according to a recording of the conversation. “I shot 15 prisoners dead. I don’t give a f***k.” (GlobalPost listened to the recording but could not independently verify the voice was in fact Pavlov’s.)
Pavlov’s rebel bosses were quick to deny their men are involved in what would amount to a war crime.
“They don’t have the facts,” Eduard Basurin, a top defense official for the rebels, told Reuters on Thursday. “Let them present the facts, photographs, video, then we can comment.”
World rights watchdog Amnesty International believes it’s seen just that. In a statement released Thursday, the group said it reviewed videos depicting captured Ukrainian troops who, in separate photographs, reportedly turned up dead at a morgue in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Bullet wounds to the head and upper body were consistent with “execution-style” shots, the watchdog said.
“The new evidence of these summary killings confirms what we have suspected for a long time,” Denis Krivosheev, the group’s Europe and Central Asia deputy director, said in the statement. “The question now is: What are the separatist leaders going to do about it?”
It’s not the first time the insurgents — whom Western and Ukrainian officials insist have been armed and guided by Russia — have faced war crime allegations.
They stunned observers late last summer after parading a group of Ukrainian prisoners at gunpoint through central Donetsk on Ukraine’s Independence Day. Furious onlookers hurled insults and objects at the tattered and weary soldiers.
Last January, videos emerged of another popular rebel commander, Givi, taunting Ukrainian troops with a sword, then cutting the chevrons off their jackets and force-feeding them to the bloodied troops.