MOSCOW/SLAVYANSK, UKRAINE – Russia pledged Saturday to help free a group of international OSCE observers being held hostage by pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine who accuse them of being “NATO spies.”
“We believe that these people should be released as soon as possible,” Russia’s envoy to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Andrei Kelin, told Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency. “As an OSCE member, Russia will take all possible steps in this case.”
Russian’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement saying Moscow was “taking measures” to resolve the situation but did not provide details.
The rebels on Friday seized the 13 members of a military observer mission belonging to the pan-European security body. The foreign observers were sent to Ukraine to monitor an April 17 accord signed in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union that was meant to de-escalate the dangerous crisis in the ex-Soviet republic.
The OSCE personnel were being detained in the flash-point town of Slavyansk, which insurgents seized two weeks ago and which is now under siege by the Ukrainian military.
“We arrested some NATO spies . . . they will be exchanged for our own prisoners. I don’t see any other way they will be freed,” Denis Pushilin, the head of the insurgents’ self-declared Donetsk Republic, told reporters in the town on Saturday.
The town’s self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, also told Russian TV news crews that the OSCE members were being considered “intelligence officers of NATO country members.”
“Military personnel from Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria I think and — from somewhere else, I can’t immediately recall — have been detained,” he said in broadcasts seen in Moscow. “We believe an OSCE mission does not imply the participation of military personnel entering our territory unimpeded and studying our facilities.”
Ponomaryov, speaking to other reporters in Slavyansk, said the detained OSCE group should have asked for “permission” from the rebels to travel in the area.
Slavyansk has become the epicenter of tensions between pro-Russian protesters and Ukrainian authorities in the eastern part of the country where pro-Kremlin rebels have taken control of a string of towns.
Late Friday, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that pro-Russian separatists had arrested the 13 mission members, operating under German command. Four are Germans, including three members of the German military.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter that one was a Swede. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka also confirmed a Czech was among the OSCE staff, and demanded their release.
The separatists’ actions, Sobotka said, “are not helping calm the situation” but rather “unfortunately contribute to its escalation.”
Ukraine, the United States and many EU countries believe Russia is in control of the rebels and fomenting unrest in Ukraine to keep it under its post-Soviet influence.
Authorities in Berlin said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to demand Moscow use its influence to secure the group’s “immediate release.”
“We are using all the means at our disposal to . . . ensure that they can continue their mission,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Russian Foreign Ministry later issued a statement appearing to lay the blame for the monitors’ detention at Ukraine’s feet. “They were invited by the Ukrainian authorities” on the basis of a Vienna treaty, and “in accordance with this document, ensuring the safety of monitors rests fully with the receiving side,” the ministry said.
Moscow suggested Kiev’s authorities should have agreed the scope of the OSCE’s work in regions where they “do not control the situation, and where a military operation against residents of their own country is taking place.”
The detention of the group sparked widespread international condemnation and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted “there is a strong connection between Russia and these separatists.”