Zelenskiy leads tributes to revered Ukrainian fighter killed in Bakhmut

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy led tributes on Friday to Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a renowned commander known as "Da Vinci" who won public affection for committing his entire adult life to fighting Russia and its proxies.

The 27-year-old, whose unit is called Da Vinci's Wolves, was killed this week in Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that has since August experienced the deadliest fighting of the war and remains fiercely contested.

Zelenskiy appeared with the visiting Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, at the ornate, golden-domed St. Michael's Cathedral in central Kyiv to lay flowers on Kotsiubailo's coffin.

"It hurts to lose our heroes. Brave, courageous, strong. Loyal to themselves and to the state," Zelenskiy said on the Telegram app.

"I handed over to Oksana Kotsiubailo, Da Vinci's mother, the Cross of Military Merit, which her son was posthumously awarded. We will never forget. And we will always be grateful."

Later, hundreds of people gathered in the nearby Independence Square, a symbol of Ukraine's attempts to prise itself from Russia's sphere of influence and move closer to the European Union.

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, head of Ukraine's armed forces, were among the dignitaries to pay their respects on the square.

Kotsiubailo was made a "Hero of Ukraine" by Zelenskiy in 2022, before Russia's full-scale invasion, for his role in fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since the start of the armed conflict in 2014.

Linked with the right-wing movement Right Sector, he is one of several figures from nationalist groups, some of which took part in a 2014 uprising that toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian president, whose reputations have grown in the past year.

Critics say the groups' radicalism and history of violence have helped Russian media to portray them as "neo-Nazis" who threaten Russian-speakers living in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion by saying it is the only way to rid Ukraine of "neo-Nazis" backed by Western allies bent on destroying Russia.

Kyiv and Western leaders dismiss such claims, and describe Europe's worst conflict since World War Two as a land grab that is destined to fail.

In Russia, pro-Kremlin commentators and Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group whose fighters have been leading the charge in Bakhmut, celebrated Kotsiubailo's death.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Kevin Liffey)