Eight European military observers held prisoner by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine appeared in public yesterday and gave assurances that they weren't being mistreated, but there was no indication they would be released soon.
The insurgents in Slavyansk have taken a number of people hostage, including journalists and pro-Ukraine activists, as they strengthen their control in the east of the country in defiance of the interim government in Kiev and its Western supporters. Yesterday, they captured three Ukrainian security service officers, who were shown to Russian journalists bloodied and blindfolded with packing tape.
Colonel Axel Schneider from Germany, who spoke for the group of military observers, stressed that they were on a diplomatic mission under the auspices of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe when detained on Friday and weren't spying for Nato, as the insurgents claim.
The observers, who appeared nervous, were in the custody of armed men wearing camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas, who escorted them into the Slavyansk city hall for the news conference and led them away afterwards. Schneider, however, said they were being treated as well as possible under the circumstances. "The mayor of this city granted us his protection and he regarded us as his guests," Schneider told journalists in Slavyansk, which has become the centre of the pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
"I can tell you that the word of the mayor is a word of honour. We have not been touched," he said.
Schneider said he no information about when they would be released and that this was a matter for diplomats of their countries. In addition to three German officers and a civilian interpreter, the group also includes officers from Poland, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Schneider said he understood that the self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarov, could use the observers as a bargaining chip. "Our presence here in Slavyansk is for sure a political instrument for the decision-makers here in the region and the possibility to use it for negotiations," the German colonel said. "It's logical in the eyes of Mayor Ponomarov that he can use us to present his positions."
Ponomarov had said on Saturday that the observers could be released in exchange for jailed pro-Russia activists.
The mayor has refused to specify how many Ukrainian journalists and activists his forces have detained.
Yesterday, the insurgents captured three Ukrainian security service officers, who were shown to journalists in the security service headquarters in Slavyansk. Stripped of trousers and shoes, they sat with heads bowed.
Igor Strelkov, who has been identified as the commander of the armed insurgents, said the three Ukrainian officers were on a mission to seize leaders of the pro-Russia force when they were captured.
Ukraine's security service confirmed that its officers had been seized by armed men. The officers were on a mission to detain a Russian citizen suspected in the killing of a Ukrainian parliament member, the agency said.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of using covert forces to encourage the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia militias have seized police stations and government buildings in at least 10 cities and towns.