Sunday 15 December 2019

Mayor of Ukraine's second city falls victim to gunmen

Participants wave flags during a pro-Russian support rally in eastern Ukranian city of Kharkiv April 27, 2014
Participants wave flags during a pro-Russian support rally in eastern Ukranian city of Kharkiv April 27, 2014
Participants wave flags during a pro-Russian support rally in eastern Ukranian city of Kharkiv April 27, 2014

Christian Lowe

The mayor of an eastern Ukrainian city has been shot and wounded amid separatist unrest, his office have said

The office of Hennady Kernes, the mayor of second-largest city Kharkiv, said he has been wounded with a gunshot to his back.

It said he is undergoing surgery and "doctors are fighting for his life".

Kharkiv is part of the region in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian gunmen have either seized government buildings or staged protests to demand greater autonomy or annexation by Russia.

Mr Kernes first held a pro-Russian stance, but later positioned himself as largely loyal to the Kiev government.

Masked and armed militants have also seized a government building in yet another city in eastern Ukraine, expanding their onslaught in the region.

The building housing the city hall and the local government in Kostyantynivka, 100 miles from the Russian border.

It was seized by masked men who carried automatic weapons. An Associated Press photographer saw about 15, some of them wearing the St George's ribbon symbol of the pro-Russian movement, guarding the building.

Kostyantynivka is just south of Slovyansk, which has been in insurgents' hands for more than three weeks. The militias there are keeping seven Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) military observers hostage.

Pro-Russian militants in camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas yesterday paraded the captive European military observers before the media.

It came hours after three Ukrainian security guards were shown bloodied, blindfolded and stripped of their trousers and shoes, their arms bound with packing tape.

The provocative displays came as the increasingly ruthless pro-Russian insurgency in the east turned to kidnapping as an ominous new tactic.

Dozens of people are being held hostage, including journalists and pro-Ukraine activists, in makeshift jails in Slovyansk, as the pro-Russian insurgents strengthen their control in defiance of the interim government in Kiev and its Western supporters.

Speaking in deliberate and clipped phrases, Col Axel Schneider of Germany, speaking on behalf of the observers, insisted they were not Nato spies, as claimed by the insurgents, but a military observation mission operating under the auspices of the OSCE.

"We are not fighters, we are diplomats in uniform," he said, noting that his unarmed team included an officer from Sweden, which is not a Nato member.

Referring to himself and his team as "guests" under the "protection" of the city's self-proclaimed mayor, Col Schneider said they were being treated as well as possible under the circumstances.

"The mayor of this city granted us his protection and he regarded us as his guests," he said. "I can tell you that the word of the mayor is a word of honour. We have not been touched."

He said his group, which was detained by pro-Russian militiamen outside Slovyansk on Friday, was initially kept in a basement before being moved on Saturday.

"Since yesterday, we have been in a more comfortable room, which has been equipped with heating. We have daylight and an air conditioning unit," he said, "All our officers, including the interpreters, are healthy and well."

The spectacle of accredited diplomats being presented to the media as what Slovyansk's insurgency-appointed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has described as "bargaining chips" provoked disgust in European capitals.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned it as "revolting" and a violation of the men's dignity. Four members of the team are German.

One of the observers, Swedish officer Major Thomas Johansson, was released later in the day "on humanitarian grounds as he has a mild form of diabetes", said Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the Slovyansk mayor.

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