Monday 19 February 2018

Pro-Russian rebels want swap deal for release of kidnapped officials

G7 puts pressure on Moscow over kidnapped officials as tensions rise

Ukrainian government troops inspect a truck in the east of the country
Ukrainian government troops inspect a truck in the east of the country

Colin Freeman and Harriet Salem

Pro-Russian gunmen in Ukraine demanded a “prisoner” exchange for a team of kidnapped western officials yesterday.

Meanwhile, the G7 announced further sanctions in an attempt to put pressure on the Kremlin and the United States sent 150 paratroopers to Lithuania as a gesture of support.

The 13 officials, part of an international observation team, were being held in “inhuman conditions” in a makeshift jail in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, where separatists seized control a fortnight ago.

Their captors said the men were Nato “spies” and vowed that they would only be freed in exchange for the release of pro-Russian activists arrested by the Ukrainian government.

Kiev accused the gunmen of using the officials as “human shields” in a bid to thwart an attempt to retake Slavyansk by Ukrainian troops, who sealed off the city last week.

The observers, who are part of a mission co-ordinated by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), include nationals from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic, along with several Ukrainian army officers. They were detained on Friday.

Their detention came as the West warned Russia it would face fresh punishment for continuing to stir separatist trouble in eastern Ukraine.

Tomorrow, the European Union is expected to name 15 more senior Russian figures who will be subject to asset freezes and a travel ban. The US is simultaneously expected to announce separate measures that may go further.

Washington has also dispatched 150 paratroopers for exercises in Lithuania, a move designed to remind Russia that the former soviet republics of the Baltic now enjoy Nato protection.

In a further sign of a mounting confrontation between Moscow and Kiev, the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Russian war planes had violated Ukrainian airspace several times over the previous 48 hours.

That followed a major build-up of Russian military power, with columns of tanks and troop carriers seen heading for several points along the border.

Although American and European leaders announced further sanctions on Friday, yesterday the G7 forum of major economies issued a statement declaring sanctions in its name as well.

The group, comprising the US, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan, has already punished Russia by suspending its membership of the forum, which was previously the G8.

“We believe that these sanctions will have a significant impact,” said Ben Rhodes, America's deputy national security adviser. “There was a quick agreement about the need to move forward with a sequence of steps.”

However, it remains to |be seen just how biting the

measures will be. Europe's appetite for applying sanctions has been limited by fears that the Kremlin could take revenge measures, such as hiking European gas prices.

Yesterday, however, US officials said that “sectoral” sanctions were being prepared so that they could be put in place immediately in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. One unnamed Western diplomat said that an invasion was still a possibility and could even take place “within days”.

The new sanctions are intended to punish Russia for failing to comply with the recent Geneva peace accord aimed at defusing the Ukraine crisis, a G7 statement said.

It pointedly praised the “restraint” with which the new pro-western government in Kiev had acted in dealing with pro-Russian gunmen who have seized official buildings in the east of Ukraine.

Russia said yesterday that it was also working to get the imprisoned delegation freed and blamed Kiev for failing to ensure the mission's safety in “areas where the authorities do not control the situation”.

The separatists are holding the observers in the basement of a local state security building in Slavyansk.

Ukraine's state security service said that one of the observers was in need of urgent medical attention but had been denied access to a doctor.

The group's captors showed off military identification cards, which they cited as proof that the detainees were spying for Nato. It is, however, standard practice for serving military officers to be seconded to OSCE missions.

“They are spies”, insisted the town's new self-styled mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev.

Outside the makeshift jail, gunmen joked about the mission's supposed attempt to pose as tourists.

“They're relaxing. Eating dinner, enjoying spa treatment,” laughed one, cradling a Kalashnikov.

Both Russia and the US engaged in symbolic shows of military strength to show their resolve over the crisis.

Russian military aircraft entered Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight, according to Mr Yatsenyuk, who said: “The only reason is to provoke Ukraine to [launch] a missile and to accuse Ukraine of waging a war on Russia.”

The arrival of US troops on Lithuanian soil was welcomed by the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, whose tiny country infuriated Russia when it decided to become part of Nato.

“This US troop addition is very timely and very necessary,” she said. “The numbers are not important.

“If just one of our guests is harmed, this would mean an open confrontation, not with Lithuania but with the United States of America.”

© Telegraph

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