MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, has stirred up controversy after poising with a flag of Ukrainian rebels and donating 1 million rouble ($18,439) to a theater in eastern Ukraine.
The United Nations says more than 4,300 people have been killed in eight months of conflict between Ukrainian government forces and rebels in the east, which began after a Russian-backed president was ousted by street protests in February.
Last Sunday, Netrebko, who resides in Austria and has dual citizenship, held a news briefing in St Petersburg and poised with a flag of so-called "Novorossiya" - or New Russia, a czarist-era designation for much of present-day Ukraine - together with a rebel leader.
"I think that the war should end as soon as possible. But this is politics, I'm not a part of it. I'd like to make this gesture in support of art where it’s most needed now," Netrebko said at the briefing.
Oleg Tsaryov, the senior rebel official, published the photo on his Twitter feed.
"Her meeting with a separatist leader and having a photo taken in front of a separatist flag is highly problematic," an Austrian foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters. "Given the really difficult situation we are facing in Ukraine, this is anything but helpful."
There have also been numerous angry posts on her Facebook page about the pictures.
Austrian Airlines, for which Netrebko had an advertising contract that expired last month, said there had been no plans to extend the deal.
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Kiryl Sukhotski in Moscow and Michael Shields in Vienna; Editing by Larry King)