Pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk on Saturday released seven European military observers and five Ukrainian assistants who had been held captive for more than a week.
The observers, members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), were seized in Sloviansk on April 25 by insurgents who said the team possessed unspecified suspicious material and alleged they were spying for NATO.
A team member from Sweden was also seized but was released earlier. Unlike the other observers’ countries, Sweden is not a member of NATO and the Swede reportedly suffers from a mild form of diabetes.
Insurgent leader, self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Slaviansk Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying he ordered the release because of increasing insecurity in the city. But he later told The Associated Press that “they are not being released – they are leaving us, as we promised them”.
Slaviansk has been at the epicenter of the pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and the scene of deadly fighting between insurgents and the Ukrainian military.
Ukrainian forces launched an assault on the town on Friday in an effort to take it back from separatists, during which two military helicopters were shot down.
The OSCE team’s leader, German Colonel Axel Schneider, speaking on the road out of Slaviansk after being freed said: “You can imagine, it’s a big relief. The situation was really tough. The last two nights when you see what was going on, every minute gets longer.”
The non-Ukrainian members of the OSCE team were flown late Saturday to Berlin, where they were reunited with their families.
“We are all very happy,'' Schneider said at Tegel Airport. “We saw our families again – that’s not something we would have imagined last night.''
Attempts to negotiate the OSCE team’s release in the days following their capture initially made little progress. The breakthrough apparently came after Russia sent a special envoy, former human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, to Slaviansk.
Lukin was quoted by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti as saying the release was “a voluntary humanitarian act”.
Although Russia denies allegations that it is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities and towns, the release of the OSCE hostages shows the extent of the Kremlin’s influence in the country, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Ukraine, Douglas Herbert, said.
“In less than a day, whatever he [Lukin] did and whatever he said behind the scenes has apparently worked in securing the release of these men that no one else seemed to be able to get released,” he said.
“If it is indeed the work of Lukin, it shows that that when and if Russia has the will to try to unblock things and make things happen on the ground, they definitely have influence over the separatists.”
Western countries blame Russia for stoking the separatism and fear Moscow could be planning to repeat its annexation of Crimea in other parts of Ukraine, something the Kremlin denies.
US Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday hailed the release of the OSCE team.
"It's a step,” said Kerry. “But there are many other steps that have to be taken in order to be able to de-escalate the situation."
Kerry, Lavrov call on each other to de-escalate crisis
Kerry was speaking to reporters during a visit to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa on Saturday shortly after the US secretary of state had a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
In his phone call with Lavrov, Kerry said he reiterated "that it is important for Russia to withdraw support for the separatists and to assist in removing people from the buildings and beginning to de-escalate the situation."
He also warned of additional sanctions "if those supported by Russia continue to interfere with the election,” referring to the Ukrainian presidential poll set for May 25.
In a statement released Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov had told Kerry that the US should use its influence to make Ukraine's government immediately stop military operations in south-east Ukraine.
The Kerry-Lavrov phone call came as Ukraine’s military continued its offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the east on Saturday, with Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announcing that Ukrainian forces had taken over a television tower in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, south of Slaviansk.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-05-03