A group of European monitors detained by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine appeared in public Sunday to give assurances they are not being mistreated, even as negotiations began to secure their release.
With armed rebels watching as they spoke, the leader of the monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, German Colonel Axel Schneider, assured reporters in Slovyansk they were in good health.
The insurgents called the eight military observers "prisoners of war." Schneider said they were being held for political reasons.
"Our presence here in Slovyansk is for sure a political instrument for the decision-makers here in the region, and the possibility to use it for negotiations."
The OSCE sent a team of negotiators to eastern Ukraine to meet with the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, about freeing the military monitors.
The rebels also displayed three bloodied and blindfolded officers from Ukraine's Security Service it captured. The officers were shown with heads bowed, and stripped of their pants and shoes.
Meanwhile, at a news conference in Malaysia, U.S. President Barack Obama warned economic sanctions against Russia will be stiffened because he said Moscow is encouraging unrest in the largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
"There is strong evidence that they have been encouraging the kinds of activities that taking place in eastern and southern Ukraine and so, collectively, us and the Europeans have said that so long as Russia continues down the path of provocation rather than try to resolve this issue peacefully and de-escalating, there are going to be consequences. And those consequences will continue to grow."
In a joint statement late Friday, the Group of Seven major economies announced it had agreed to "move swiftly" on new sanctions against Russia because of its interference in Ukraine.
The G-7 nations said they would take measures to intensify "targeted sanctions" against Moscow. A U.S. official said the penalties could take effect as early as Monday.
Mr. Obama says the U.S. and Europe must act together in levying sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine that he says threaten that country's independence and sovereignty.
The American leader said a deal had been reached with Russia to de-escalate the crisis, but "Russia has not lifted a finger to help."
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for Russian support "without preconditions" for efforts to free the European monitors seized Friday.
A senior State Department official said Kerry delivered his demand in a telephone call to Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Moscow later said it is taking what it called "all measures to resolve the situation," but blamed Ukrainian authorities for failing to secure the safety of the team.
The German-led OSCE team was acting under the authority of a four-party agreement directing the OSCE to monitor security and human rights in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south. The deal, reached in Geneva, was signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
Separately, interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters Saturday that Russian aircraft had violated Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its "objective monitoring of the air situation" had not detected any overflight violations.
Meanwhile, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, VOA correspondent Brian Padden says he was confronted by an angry mob Saturday as he tried to cover a rally in front of an occupied building. He says protesters accused him of supporting a "fascist" U.S. government.
Armed pro-Russian gunmen have seized government facilities in about 10 cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, and are demanding a referendum on whether to secede from the country and join Russia.