Ukraine's women rebels don evening gowns for glam night

DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) - Yana Manuilova cuts an imposing figure in combat fatigues as a gun-toting rebel in eastern Ukraine.

But to mark International Women's Day she took time out from the war to zip herself into an evening gown and compete in a beauty pageant in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

"Even in my military fatigues I don't forget that I am a woman. Besides, my comrades often remind me of the fact," the 35-year-old joked.

Manuilova and nine other women rebels sashayed down an improvised catwalk in the lobby of one of Donetsk's more upmarket hotels Saturday evening, cheered on by relatives and comrades including high-ranking rebels.

Many of the fighters in the audience had not bothered to change out of their fatigues to attend the show, but they had to leave their weapons at the hotel entrance.

The event was for all the world like a beauty contest anywhere, were it not for the stack of automatic rifles outside and the armed men at the door checking all the comings and goings.

The contestants posed for the cameras, displayed their talents at singing, dancing or reciting poetry, and gamely answered questions with brief speeches putting the world to rights.

The glitz and glamour ended all too quickly, and the women changed back into their fatigues.

"Unfortunately, the stars of today's holiday feel more at ease in uniform than in dresses and high heels," said Denis Pushilin, deputy head of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

A rebel who gave her name only as Irina said she left her job at a kindergarten to join the fight in May 2014, soon after the start of the pro-Russian insurgency against the Ukrainian government, a conflict that has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

"There is no difference in what we and the men do in the battalions," said Irina, 23. "We have the same duties." She said few people had much faith in the latest EU-mediated ceasefire that took effect three weeks ago between separatists and Kiev's forces, but hoped that it would hold nonetheless.

"If peace finally arrives, I will be with my children," she said, noting that she has seen them only once in the past six months. "I'll try to be a good mother." "My son is very proud of me. My daughter is too small to understand," she said.

Manuilova, a lawyer by profession, joined the insurgency from the very beginning, after taking part in the pro-Russia rallies that preceded the outbreak of armed conflict in late 2013.

"It's very different being a soldier. You lose the comfort, you can't rest or take a shower... but I feel obliged to defend my land, like my parents and grandparents," Manuilova said.

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