Thursday 25 December 2014

Insurgents free 4 OSCE observers

Published 29/06/2014 | 05:02

Alexander Borodai smokes after releasing members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Donetsk (AP)
Alexander Borodai smokes after releasing members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Donetsk (AP)

Pro-Russian insurgents released a second team of observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who had been held captive since the end of May.

OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said that the four observers were released and met by an OSCE official in the eastern city of Donetsk.

"They're in good health, they're in good spirits," he said.

OSCE lost contact with four monitors from its Donetsk team and four monitors from its Luhansk team in late May. The members of the Donetsk team were freed earlier this week.

The second release followed a EU summit on Friday, where leaders decided not to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia for destabilising eastern Ukraine, but gave the Russian government and pro-Russian insurgents until tomorrow to take steps to improve the situation.

The EU leaders said Russia and the rebels should work to release all captives, retreat from border checkpoints and launch "substantial negotiations" on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan.

"We have fulfilled our obligations before the Ukrainian side. All eight observers have been released," Alexander Borodai, one of the leaders of the insurgents, said after the release, according to news agency Interfax.

Ukraine on Friday signed a free-trade pact with the EU, the very deal that a former Ukrainian president dumped under pressure from Moscow in November, fuelling huge protests that eventually drove him from power.

Moscow responded to those events by annexing the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March, and a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine erupted the month after, leading to the developments that have brought Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War times.

The US and the EU have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and threatened to impose more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of Russia's economy if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate the crisis.

Earlier yesterday, Russia's foreign minister accused the US of encouraging Ukraine to challenge Moscow and heavily weighing in on the EU.

Sergey Lavrov said that "our American colleagues still prefer to push the Ukrainian leadership toward a confrontational path".

He added that chances for settling the Ukrainian crisis would have been higher if it only depended on Russia and Europe.

A week-long cease-fire, which both sides have been accused of violating, expired on Friday, but Mr Poroshenko quickly declared its extension until 10pm local time tomorrow.

However he warned that the ceasefire could be terminated in areas where rebels violate it.

Mr Borodai, who has promised to abide by the extended ceasefire, rejected the EU leaders' demand to retreat from three checkpoints on the border with Russia captured by the rebels, but invited OSCE to send its monitors to the border crossings and any other areas in the east.

He also demanded that the Ukrainian government pull back its forces as a condition for holding meaningful talks to settle the crisis.

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, said he hopes the release of the observers will give the organisation's special monitoring mission in Ukraine the opportunity to carry out its mandate "to the maximum extent possible and strengthen its role as international presence in the country".

Ukrainian military spokesman Olexiy Dmitrashkovskiy said yesterday that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and four others were wounded in a rebel shelling near Slovyansk, a key flashpoint in the insurgency, Interfax reported.

Rebels, in turn, claimed that Ukrainian troops tried to capture one of the checkpoints on the Russian border, which they control, but were rebuffed.

Russian officials said several Ukrainian shells landed on Russian territory early yesterday, and one shell fragment hit the border checkpoint on the Russian side of the border, but there were no injuries.

Press Association

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