Pro-Russian insurgents displayed eight captured OSCE observers to the media on Sunday, maintaining that they are considered “prisoners of war”. One of them was however freed later in the day due to medical reasons.
"In our town, where a war situation is going on, any military personnel who don't have our permission are considered prisoners of war," the self-declared mayor of Slaviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov said, before leading eight seized members of the OSCE military inspection mission before scores of journalists in the town hall.
Col. Axel Schneider from Germany, who appeared nervous as he spoke for the group, stressed they were on a diplomatic mission under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) when detained Friday and weren’t spying for NATO, as the insurgents claim.
Schneider told journalists that they had not been harmed and were in good health.
Schneider added that he understood that Ponomarev would use the observers as a bargaining chip. The self-declared mayor said Saturday that the observers could be released in exchange for jailed pro-Russia activists.
Later on Sunday, however, one of the observers – a Swedish national – was freed because of a medical condition.
“He has a mild form of diabetes and so we decided to let him go,” Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for Ponomaryov, told reporters.
‘Negotiations for release’
'a media stunt'
Ponomaryov had earlier said he did not consider the observers to be part of the official OSCE mission to Ukraine and that he would be meeting Sunday with a delegation of mediators to negotiate their release.
He said the group's driver had been already been freed, bringing the number of detainees in the OSCE military verification mission to 12 – eight Europeans and four accompanying members of the Ukrainian army.
The OSCE headquarters in Vienna has acknowledged that they the military verification mission is a separate unit headed by German command.
Ponomaryov also said his men had captured three officers from Ukraine's state security service overnight who had been mounting an operation in the nearby town of Horlivka. These officers were also displayed to journalists early on Sunday, bloodied and blindfolded with packing tape. Stripped of their trousers and shoes, the captive officers sat with heads bowed in the security service headquarters.
The insurgents in Slovyansk have increasingly turned to hostage-taking as they seek to cement their control in the east of the country in defiance of the interim government in Kiev, the capital, and its Western supporters.
US President Barack Obama said on Sunday that Russia should not stand by while the OSCE mission was detained by pro-Moscow "thugs".
Russia should instead work with the international observers, "rather than stand by while they are being bullied and in some cases detained by these thugs", he said.
Speaking while on a trip to Malaysia, Obama also said new international sanctions against Russia due to come into force early next week were a reaction to Moscow's "provocation" in eastern Ukraine.
"It is important for us to take further steps sending a message to Russia that these kinds of destabilising activities taking place in Ukraine have to stop," Obama said.
Obama was speaking a day after G7 nations said that they would impose new sanctions on Russia within days, accusing Moscow of not honouring an agreement forged in Geneva aimed at easing tensions in Ukraine.
He also defended his decision to wait for European nations – which are far more affected by Russian trade and investment issues than is the United States – before unveiling another set of sanctions.
Next round of sanctions
"The more we are united, the more effective it is going to be," Obama said.
US officials say the next set of sanctions will target key officials in the energy and banking sectors who they say are Kremlin "cronies" with significant influence on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Previous sanctions linked to Russia's annexation of Crimea imposed visa and travel banks on key political figures around Putin and on a Russian bank.
Washington says that it will not move on to direct sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy itself unless Moscow's forces, which are now amassed on the border, cross into Ukraine.
Obama said he is confident European states would come on board despite the political and economic costs that would entail if Russia mounted a bona fide invasion of Ukraine.
"If, in fact, we need to move forward with sectoral sanctions, then it is going to be important that we know exactly what we are prepared to do and sustain over the long haul, and our European partners know what they are willing and able to do as well," he said.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-27