Pro-Russian separatists paraded before the media Sunday a team of European security observers they seized last week in Ukraine’s eastern city of Slovyansk, and talks intensified over their fate.
The separatists said they are ready to swap the group of European military observers they snatched for some of their own jailed activists. They displayed to journalists their captives – eight in total with one member, a Swede, subsequently released – saying they were not being mistreated. Still, the group appeared nervous.
The head of the captured military mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) took care to praise his kidnappers. Germany’s Colonel Axel Schneider said none of the mission members had been harmed, and that the town’s insurgent leader, the self-declared “people’s mayor,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, regarded them as guests.
But the colonel added he and his colleagues were not free to go.
Several hours later, the OSCE’s deputy mission chief in Ukraine, who arrived earlier in the day, was still trying to secure the captives' release.
Ponomaryov’s spokeswoman, Stella Khorosheva, said negotiations were continuing and that the pro Russia activists were still seeking a prisoner exchange.
Khorosheva only backed away slightly from earlier insurgent claims that the captured OSCE members were spies. She said they had behaved suspiciously when seeking to access this rust belt town of 130,000 and had material and equipment that compromised them.
The group was seized in the flashpoint town of Slovyansk in Ukraine’s troubled east despite the fact that the OSCE is tasked to help implement peace steps agreed to in the Geneva accord signed more than a week ago by top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
The United States and European governments have condemned the group’s seizure. Moscow has said it is ready to help secure their release but has not denounced the separatist action.
Earlier, three captured Ukrainian security service officers also were displayed in Slovyansk to journalists. Bloodied and blindfolded, they had been stripped to their underpants.
The capture of the OSCE team appears to have slowed the progress of a campaign by the Ukrainian military to contain the separatists, who Kyiv authorities and many in West believe have Moscow’s backing.
Several separatist checkpoints beyond Slovyansk and the neighboring town of Kramatorsk that had been cleared by Ukrainian government forces last week were back Sunday in the hands of the insurgents.
A group of eight masked and well-equipped separatists were stopping cars on a road leading to Kramatorsk’s small airport, which is being used as a base by Ukrainian Special Forces units.
They snatched a young couple who had just delivered food for the soldiers at the base, claiming they were “bandits.”
Their leader, who declined to give his name, said the pro-Russian insurgents are protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine. He says the February ouster of Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych that triggered the Ukraine crisis was a crime against the Ukrainian people.
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