KIEV - Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, an influential force in the country's unrest-hit east, on Tuesday called for a peace rally against the pro-Russian insurgency, just days ahead of a key presidential poll.
In his strongest statement yet against the pro-Kremlin separatists who have seized a string of towns and cities across Ukraine's east, Akhmetov said in an open letter that "people are tired of living in fear and terror" and warned the actions of the rebels would lead to "genocide".
Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at more than US$12 billion, operates a vast industrial empire in the eastern region known as Donbass.
He had intervened to restore order last week after deadly violence between government troops and pro-Russian separatists rocked the southeastern city of Mariupol.
"Across all of Donbass, there are millions ready to join in," Akhmetov said in his statement, which came days ahead of Ukraine's May 25 presidential poll. "They are tired of going outside and coming under gunfire."
He spoke out against the rebels who have been waging an insurgency against the central government in Kiev since early April, saying they had done nothing for the region but instead were roaming the streets with assault rifles and grenade launchers engaging in "banditry and looting".
"It is a fight against the citizens of our region. It is a fight against Donbass. It is a genocide of Donbass," he said of the insurgency.
The United Nations said last week that almost 130 people had been killed in the violence in the east, where separatists have seized more than a dozen towns and proclaimed their own states in the coal and steel hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk.