SLAVYANSK - The OSCE team captured by pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine was freed on Saturday after more than a week of captivity in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, the group said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirmed the release of the seven European military observers on its official Twitter feed, and later in a formal statement. The OSCE’s current chairman, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, expressed his ‘gratitude’ to all states involved in freeing the inspectors and their Ukrainian hosts, while stressing the OSCE’s own role in the ‘difficult’ negiotiations.
President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Vladimir Lukin, first announced the team’s release to Russian news agencies, as fighting rocked the outskirts the rebel-held town of 160,000. The detainees were bitter towards their captors. One told reporters before climbing into a black vehicle outside the town hall: ‘I will never forgive them.’ The leader of the group, German colonel Axel Schneider, told mass circulation daily Bild they were ‘relatively well, given the circumstances’. ‘We are glad that we are out. We’re driving out of Slavyansk now with the Russian special envoy and hope that we can go as quickly as possible from there to Donetsk and then home to Germany,’ he added. ‘We heard the gunfire of recent days and it’s not an experience I would wish on anyone,’ said Schneider. The original team of monitors captured on April 25 comprised eight Europeans - four Germans, one Swede, one Pole, one Dane and one Czech - and five Ukrainians accompanying them.
One of the Ukrainians was swiftly released. The Swede was later freed on medical grounds as he suffers from diabetes. The team’s release came a day after Ukraine’s army mounted an offensive on Slavyansk that claimed at least nine lives, including four servicemen. The West had been pushing hard for the release of the men, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying on Friday it was an ‘important step’ in de-escalating the crisis.
‘This was a goodwill humanitarian act and we are very grateful to the masters of the city,’ Lukin was quoted as saying. ‘We would like this to be followed by other humanitarian acts including the cessation of gunfights,’ he said, adding he was hoping the conflicting parties would also sit down at the negotiating table. The eight-day ordeal began last Friday when the bus carrying the men was stopped near Slavyansk and they were detained by the pro-Russian rebels in charge of the town.
They were accused of being ‘NATO spies’ and at one point the self-styled mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, described them as ‘prisoners of war’. In a spectacle that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier denounced as ‘repugnant’, the men were presented before the world’s media in a press conference where they spoke under apparent duress with armed guards standing over them.
More than 30 people were killed in a “criminal” blaze in Ukraine’s southern city of Odessa, as violence spread across the country during the bloodiest day since Kiev’s Western-backed government took power. Ukraine’s interior ministry said at least 31 people had died in the fire Friday, with local media reporting that pro-Russian militants were believed to have been in the burning building at the time. Most of those who were killed died from smoke inhalation, while others perished trying to escape by jumping out of windows. Russia said it was “outraged” as the scenic port city became a new front in an escalating months-long crisis that has sparked fears of a Russian invasion.
The foreign ministry in Moscow called on Ukraine and its “Western backers to end the anarchy and take responsibility before the Ukrainian people”, blaming Kiev’s “criminal irresponsibility” for the sinister turn of events.
It capped a day of violent clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militants, with reports of renewed fighting in Slavyansk leading to the deaths of two more Ukrainian soldiers, meaning at least nine people had been killed in violence in the flashpoint eastern town throughout the day. Already the most serious rupture in West-Moscow relations since the Cold War, the diplomatic war of words intensified as the United States threatened to hit Russia with new sanctions within three weeks over what Washington called its continued “destabilisation” of Ukraine.
President Barack Obama threatened to expand punitive sanctions to broad sections of the Russian economy if Moscow continued to foment chaos in the former Soviet republic ahead of planned May 25 presidential elections. “If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilisation continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional severe sanctions,” Obama said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “If Russia continues on its current course, we have a range of tools at our disposal, including sanctions that would target certain sectors of the Russian economy.”