OSCE team freed in Ukraine

2014-05-03 22:07
(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

(Nicholas Kamm, AFP)

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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 chairperson, 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 25 April 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.

'Goodwill humanitarian act'

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.

The West pushed hard for their release with Chancellor Angela Merkel telling reporters at a joint press conference with US President Barack Obama on Friday it would be an "important step" in dialling down the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia, a member of the OSCE, had said it too pushed to secure their release but laid the blame for their detention at Kiev's door saying it was the host nation's responsibility to ensure their security.

The OSCE is in Ukraine to assess progress made towards a deal brokered in Geneva last month to defuse the crisis, which has escalated into the worst East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War.

Russia has since pronounced this deal dead.

The OSCE's chair warned in the statement that "the situation in Eastern and Southern Ukraine was at risk to deteriorate rapidly".

"Joint efforts to stop escalation and to find a way back to dialogue have to be undertaken," Burkhalter said.

"In this very tense situation, it [is] of utmost importance for all sides to act responsibly, exercise maximal restraint, to refrain from violence and search solutions through dialogue," he said.

Read more on:    russia  |  ukraine
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