Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ukraine unrest: Abducted OSCE observers freed

Pro-Russian activists in Sloviansk, 3 May Pro-Russian groups were holding the observers after seizing them in Sloviansk
Seven international military observers seized by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have been freed.

The observers, linked to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, were abducted in the town of Sloviansk on 25 April.

Five Ukrainian officers taken with them were also freed, the reports said.

The news comes as Ukraine's government resumed military action to tackle the separatists in the east, a day after deadly violence in the city of Odessa.

Russia's RIA news agency quoted Vladimir Lukin, an envoy sent by President Vladimir Putin to negotiate the release, as saying: "All the 12 people who have been on my list have been released."


A second day of military operations is under way to try to reassert central control here in eastern Ukraine and in particular in the city of Sloviansk, which has become the stronghold of pro-Russian groups.

Ukraine's interior minister has been saying "we will not stop" - suggesting that, unlike in the past when Ukrainian troops have moved in and then withdrawn, these operations will continue.

The interior ministry is also very angry that Moscow has been talking of Kiev carrying out "punitive actions" in the east and that it has been firing on civilians. The government in Ukraine is anxious that it does not give any pretext for Russia to send in its troops. That pretext would be that civilians - Russian-speaking citizens - were in danger and needed protection.

Pro-Russian groups have spoken again of needing peacekeeping troops. That would include Russians coming in to protect civilians - obviously something Kiev wants to avoid.

Local insurgent leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov confirmed the releases.

"As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests," Mr Ponomaryov said.

Associated Press news agency said that one of its reporters had seen one of the observers, German Col Axel Schneider, and his Ukrainian translator walk free.

Western leaders had condemned the abductions.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama again called for the observers to be released, saying their abduction was "inexcusable" and "disgraceful".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said earlier that the release of the seven - four Germans, a Dane, a Pole and a Czech - would be "an important step" in easing tensions in the region.

The observers are not part of the main OSCE monitoring mission, which was agreed after long negotiations by Russia, Ukraine and the US.

They are instead unarmed military observers from individual OSCE states.

Ukraine's government meanwhile confirmed a second day of military operations in the east.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the "active phase of the operation continued at dawn", with Ukrainian forces taking a television tower in Kramatorsk, which is about 17km (10 miles) from the pro-Russian separatists' stronghold of Sloviansk.

"We are not stopping," Mr Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford in the regional capital, Donetsk, says that although it appears the Ukrainian forces are continuing operations around Sloviansk, they have not yet tried to advance into the centre.
Map showing eastern Ukraine
She says she spoke to residents of the area last night and was told some in Kramatorsk had gone out to try to stop armoured personnel carriers from entering.

She says the defence ministry also reported "serious fighting" last night in Andreevka, some 6km west of Sloviansk.

The ministry said pro-Russian separatists had attacked the armed forces and two Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Pro-Russian groups confirmed this, but also said there had been civilian casualties. There is no confirmation.

The operations come a day after running battles between pro-Kiev groups and separatists in Odessa, which culminated in the fire at the Trade Unions House that left at least 36 dead.
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