MOSCOW – European military observers who were held more than a week by insurgents in eastern Ukraine walked free Saturday, with Kiev insisting the release proves Russia is fomenting unrest in Ukraine – as Moscow touted the insurgents as courageous humanists.
The latest battling narratives came a day after dozens of protesters died while trapped in a horrifying fire in Odessa, hundreds of miles away. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the deaths show Ukraine’s acting leaders are up to their elbows in blood, while authorities in Kiev blamed pro-Russia provocateurs.
The incidents highlight the intractability of Ukraine’s crisis, in which pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities and towns in the east and Ukrainian forces have tried to regain control in a limited military offensive. Looming on the other side of the border are tens of thousands of Russian troops.
A pact struck between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States in mid-April aimed to resolve the crisis emphasized the importance of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But the mission’s prospects became clouded a week later, when eight of its military observers and five accompanying Ukrainians were detained by insurgents in the city of Slovyansk, the crucible of unrest in the east.
The insurgents alleged the observers were spying for NATO and carrying suspicious material; one from non-NATO member Sweden was released two days later, but the rest remained in custody until Saturday.
The insurgents’ leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying he ordered the release because of increasing insecurity in the city. In recent days, at least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the city’s outskirts – two of them when helicopters were shot down – and at least 10 civilians have been killed, according to Ponomarev.
Although Russia denies it is encouraging or directing the insurgents, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the release was made after unambiguous instructions had been received from the Russian authorities, which yet again shows the extremists are subordinated to Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, emphasized that the release was a decision of the insurgents who have taken control of Slovyansk and called it testimony of the courage and humanism of the defenders.
Despite the release, tensions in Ukraine heightened sharply after at least 42 people died in clashes between government supporters and opponents in the Black Sea port of Odessa on Friday. On Saturday, news reports claimed fighting broke out in the city of Kramatorsk.
The Odessa clash began with street fighting between two sides in which at least three people were reported killed by gunfire, then turned into a grisly conflagration when government opponents took refuge in a building that caught fire after protesters threw firebombs inside.
In Donetsk, the largest city in the insurgent east, demonstrators who stormed the local office of the Ukrainian Security Service on Saturday evening shouted, We will not forgive Odessa. No police were deployed to block the building takeover.