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By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

DONETSK, Ukraine — In a sign of the deepening destabilization of eastern Ukraine, the popular mayor of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, was shot in the back on Monday, authorities said.

Mayor Gennady Kernes was in critical condition after undergoing surgery at a local clinic, said Dr. Valery Boiko, who performed the two-hour operation.

He was shot while jogging on the outskirts of Kharkiv at about noon, according to a statement posted on the city’s website. A police report said he was cycling at the time.

“The doctors qualified the injury as heavy, given the damage to internal organs,” the city statement said.

The Interior Ministry said Kernes was the target of an assassination attempt.

Police recovered a bullet cartridge at the scene of the shooting, according to a close friend of the mayor, former regional Governor Mikhail Dobkin.

“I have no theories, but if I knew who did this, I wouldn’t be here now; I would already be holding my hands around the throat of this man,” Dobkin, a presidential candidate, was quoted as saying in the city statement.

Kernes and Dobkin were staunch supporters of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, who was ousted in February following deadly clashes between police and protesters angered by a decision to abandon an economic association pact with the European Union.

Kernes, the longtime administrator of Kharkiv, was charged with making separatist statements and put under house arrest.

In April, when pro-Russia protests spread across eastern Ukraine, Kernes, who was still officially under house arrest, persuaded the police to storm the regional administration building in Kharkiv and push out the separatists who were occupying it.

The criminal case against him was then dropped and he returned to his mayoral duties.

Taras Berezovets, a political consultant, said the attempt on the mayor’s life was a “gruesome message to other governors and administrators not to dare meddle in the Kremlin’s game.”

“Kernes turned his back on former allies and refused to support separatists in his city, and more than that, began to firmly curb all their activities in Kharkiv and thus became a target for those interested in the political destabilization in eastern Ukraine in the run-up to the presidential election,” said Berezovets, who heads Berta Communications, a Kiev-based think tank.

AFP Photo/Anatoliy Stepanov

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