KIEV – A second team of European monitors was reported missing in restive eastern Ukraine on Friday despite army claims it had regained control over much of the separatist rust belt.
The United States meanwhile voiced growing concern over the sudden appearance of fighters from Russia’s war-ravaged Chechnya among rebels who have been waging a seven-week insurgency against Kiev’s rule.
The rebels for their part dismissed speculation of a rift in their ranks after a dozen local militants were evicted from their seat of power in Donetsk by a brigade composed largely of Chechens and other Russians from the violence-plagued North Caucasus.
The increasingly volatile conflict — growing ever more complex as rivalries emerge among rebel commanders — has ensnared a steadily climbing number of Europeans tasked with helping to resolve a crisis that has threatened the very survival of Ukraine.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said on Friday that it had been unable to establish contact with four of its monitors and their local translator since the group was stopped by “armed men” at a roadblock in the eastern region of Lugansk.
The Vienna-based organization — formed in the 1970s as a forum for dialogue during the Cold War and now a principal player in the worst East-West standoff since that era — added that another four members detained by rebels in the neighboring Donetsk region on Monday were still missing.
The self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk confirmed on Thursday that the OSCE team that went missing on Monday was being held on suspicions of spying.
Another pro-Russian commander from the little-known Southeastern Front claimed in a statement issued to the Interfax news agency earlier on Friday that his men had detained the team in Lugansk.
But a spokesman for the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” denied that the group was being held against its will.
“Nobody arrested the four OSCE observers,” Volodymyr Inogorodskiy said.
“They finished their work late (Thursday) night in Severodonetsk and we advised them not to leave the city because of the (security) situation,” said the spokesman.
Western leaders have long accused the Kremlin of choreographing the insurgency in order to upset the rule of the European-aligned team that rose to power in Kiev in February — a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin denies.
The defense ministry said on Friday that the eastern insurgency has thus far claimed the lives of 49 Ukrainian servicemen and 128 civilians and separatists.
But the recent appearance among the rebels of trained gunmen from Chechnya — a mostly Muslim region that fell under Kremlin control following two post-Soviet wars for independence — has fueled fears of the conflict being transformed into a proxy war involving elements from other unstable regions of the former USSR.
Ukraine’s acting defense minister said his forces were in high spirits despite the downing of a military helicopter on Thursday by the rebels that killed 11 soldiers and a general.
“Our armed forces have completed their assigned missions and completely cleared the southern and western parts of the Donetsk region and the northern part of the Lugansk region from the separatists,” Mykhailo Koval told reporters.
Rebels in control of the Lugansk and Donetsk government buildings have declared independence and are seeking a merger with Russia similar to the one that involving Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea following its seizure by pro-Kremlin troops in March.
Ukraine’s acting president Petro Poroshenko also vowed to punish those who used a sophisticated surface-to-air missile to shoot the MI-8 helicopter out of the Lugansk sky.
Poroshenko — a 48-year-old confectionery tycoon who backs closer ties with Europe but once enjoyed good relations with top Russian officials — won nearly 55 percent of Sunday’s presidential ballot thanks to a message focused on bringing a quick end to the separatist drive.
He has since reached out to Putin and promised to hold his first talks with the Russian leader when they both attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
But Putin has yet to confirm the meeting and Washington has once again called on Moscow to take a more constructive approach.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the recent appearance of Chechens in Donetsk and Lugansk was a dangerous development that Putin should address quickly.
“There are still danger signs there that we hope will change,” the top U.S. diplomat told PBS television.
“There is evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia who have come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting,” he said.
Signs of a rift among the rebels appeared evident on Thursday when members of the so-called Vostok (East) Brigade that is comprised of many Chechens drove a dozen local separatists from the Donetsk administration building they had seized on April 6.
But local Donetsk commander Denis Pushilin denied on Friday that a “coup” had been staged within the separatist ranks.
“All the original leaders will remain in place,” Russian news agencies quoted Pushilin as saying.
“We simply had to get rid of a few dishonest people who were involved in criminal activity that hurt the interests of the Donetsk Republic,” he said.
Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov had earlier denied sending his fighters into Ukraine.
But he also added that he could not account for the actions of all Chechens while the Kremlin has steered clear of the topic to this point.