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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukrainians Bury Wartime Guerrilla

LVIV, Ukraine -- Thousands of mourners paid their final respects on Tuesday to the last commander of a Ukrainian wartime guerrilla movement that fought both Nazi invaders and the Red Army.

Vasyl Kuk, who died over the weekend at the age of 94, headed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army from 1950 to 1954, evading capture by Soviet forces and pressing on with the fight for an independent state long after World War II had ended.

Thousands of residents of Lviv joined elderly nationalists to file past his open coffin in St. Yura Cathedral, headquarters of Ukraine's 6 million-member eastern-rite Catholic church. A yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag stood alongside as did UPA's red-and-black standard.

His body was later taken to his home village of Krasne outside Lviv for burial.

At its peak in 1943, UPA had a membership of 100,000, its ranks swelled by nationalists in western Ukraine who had suffered repression when the Soviet Union seized back the region from Poland in 1939.

After the war, the very mention of UPA and its main leader Stepan Bandera, poisoned by a Soviet agent in Germany in 1959, was virtually a criminal offense. Its fighters were ruthlessly hunted down while resisting Soviet rule.

Kuk took over the organization after its wartime commander, Roman Shukhevych, was killed in a skirmish near Lviv in 1950, and he carried out operations until he was captured by Soviet forces in northwestern Ukraine four years later. He was jailed for six years, with a death sentence for treason hanging over his head, but released as part of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's political thaw on grounds that his execution would boost the fortunes of Ukrainian nationalists.

He later appealed to activists outside Ukraine to reconcile themselves to Soviet rule.

Unlike in Russia, where wartime commemorations unite most of the country, ceremonies in Ukraine still create deep divisions. Attempts to grant recognition to UPA fighters as wartime combatants are fiercely opposed by Red Army veterans.

President Viktor Yushchenko, long an advocate of recognition, described Kuk as "a fighter, the very embodiment of the Ukrainian idea."