Kharkiv mayor Hennady Kernes.
Kharkiv mayor Hennady Kernes speaks at the congress of provincial lawmakers and officials in the Ukrainian eastern city of Kharkiv, Saturday, Feb. 22. 2014. Photo by AP
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Screen shot from Twitter of a picture of the mayor.
Screen shot from Twitter of a picture of the mayor.

The mayor of an eastern Ukrainian city was shot and critically wounded Monday amid separatist unrest, his office said.

The office of Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, said he has been wounded with a gunshot to his back. It said he is now undergoing surgery and "doctors are fighting for his life."

Kernes, 54, who turned against his former Russian backers and began siding  with Ukrainian nationalists following the February coup in Kiev, was shot while swimming in a spring near Kharkiv, according to the Facebook page of Zurab Alasania, director-general of Ukrainian state-run television. The shooting comes a day after Ukrainian nationalists clashed with pro-Russian protesters in Kharkiv, leaving 14 people injured.

Kernes is Jewish, but there has been no mention of an anti-Semitic motive in the shooting, and he was a key figure in the middle of the confrontations between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in the city.

Kharkiv is part of the region in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian gunmen have either seized government buildings or staged protests to demand greater autonomy or outright annexation by Russia. Pro-Russian militants hold at least 10 cities in the east as well as government buildings in several others.

In March, Kernes was placed under house arrest while police investigated his alleged connections to kidnapping and threats.

The mayor's political background was pro-Russian, but he switched sides under pressure from anti-Russian forces that took power in Kiev. He had been a major supporter of former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, but both of them fled to Russia after anti-Russian protesters overthrew the Kiev regime. Kernes returned to Kharkiv shortly afterward, saying he no longer supported Yanukovych.

He told the BBC: "Russian is my first language. But I support an undivided Ukraine. I am a mayor of a border city but we will never yield to intimidation. We will never make any decision that could undermine Ukrainian statehood."

When the pro-Russian separatist movement began in eastern Ukraine in the wake of the Kiev coup, Kernes was an early target of the insurgents. But in contrast to what happened in many other eastern cities, police in Kharkiv managed to stop the rebels from taking over government buildings.

Kernes was elected mayor in 2010, narrowly defeating Arsen Avakov, who is now Ukraine's interior minister. Avakov and his allies claimed the vote was rigged, which Kernes denied.

Also in eastern Ukraine on Monday, police found a dead body with signs of torture on a river bank outside the city of Sloviansk – reportedly the  same spot where two other tortured bodies, their stomachs slit open, were found on April 19.