Observers''prisoners of war': Ukraine rebels

2014-04-27 13:41
(Sergey Gapon, AFP)

(Sergey Gapon, AFP)

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Slavyansk - Pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels holding an international team of observers from the OSCE said on Sunday they are "prisoners of war".

Self-declared mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told a small group of reporters, including AFP, that the team was being kept in the town hall, but did not permit media access to them.

He added that the group's driver, who had been seized with them on Friday, had been released, bringing the number of detainees in the OSCE military verification mission to 12: Eight Europeans and four accompanying members of the Ukrainian army.

"They are prisoners of war," Ponomaryov repeated several times.

"In our town, where a war situation is going on, any military personnel who don't have our permission are considered prisoners of war."

He repeated that they would only be freed in exchange for Kiev's authorities releasing arrested pro-Moscow militants.

'Guests, not hostages'

And he stressed that the rebels did not consider the detained men part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring mission deployed in Ukraine.

The OSCE headquarters in Vienna has said the military verification mission is a separate unit headed by German command.

"I can't say that they aren't taking sides in events here, because the United States and Nato are delivering weapons and sending [military] trainers" to Kiev, and foreign private security firms were active, Ponomaryov claimed.

Ponomaryov, who was wearing a pistol in a holster and escorted by two armed bodyguards, did not say why the seized group were being kept in the town hall instead of the SBU secret services building the rebels are also occupying in the town.

He did claim, though, that the OSCE observers "are not our hostages - they are our guests".

The rebel leader said all the detainees "are doing well" and confirmed that a team of negotiators from the OSCE would be arriving in Slavyansk later on Sunday to discuss the situation of the group being held.

No contact with Kiev

Asked about Russia's promise to do everything it could to convince the pro-Kremlin rebels in Slavyansk to release the OSCE military observers, Ponomaryov said: "I have no direct contact with Moscow".

Ponomaryov also said that rebel had "arrested" three Ukrainian officers - a colonel, a major and a captain - he said had been sent towards Slavyansk on a spying mission.

"There were a total of seven in their group and we arrested three of them. We will swiftly get the four others," he said.

The three captured officers were being kept in Slavyansk.

The rebel mayor said there would be no contact with Kiev over the imprisoned Ukrainians because the insurgents see the capital's Western-backed government as illegitimate.

"There will be no contact with Kiev, only through the intermediary of the OSCE," he said. Ukraine's authorities, he said, "understand only the language of force".

Slavyansk has become the epicentre of the military standoff in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are defying Western pressure to exit occupied buildings.

The Ukrainian army has set up a siege operation around the town of 110 000 people to prevent reinforcements reaching the rebels but has stressed it will take a measure response in its military operations in a bid to avoid civilian casualties.

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