Ukraine unrest: Abducted OSCE observers freed

Axel Schneider: "According to the word given by the mayor, we have been treated as good as possible"

Seven international military observers taken captive in eastern Ukraine a week ago have been released.

Five Ukrainian officers captured with the observers, who are linked to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, were also freed.

Pro-Russian separatists in the town of Sloviansk say they released the OSCE observers "without conditions".

Kiev has resumed military action against the separatists, with fighting reported in some areas.

In Kramatorsk, south of rebel-held Sloviansk, Ukrainian forces have recaptured the headquarters of the SBU security service from pro-Russian separatists, according to the interior ministry.

It said the building was now held by the national guard.

The BBC's Fergal Keane reports from Odessa's Trade Unions House

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov earlier said the "active phase" of the military operation against pro-Russian rebels continued at dawn, with Ukrainian forces taking a television tower in Kramatorsk.

"We are not stopping," Mr Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford says she spoke to residents of the area on Friday night and was told some in Kramatorsk had gone out to try to stop armoured personnel carriers from entering.

The defence ministry also reported "serious fighting" on Friday night in Andreevka, some 6km (4 miles) west of Sloviansk, with two Ukrainian soldiers killed.

Ten separatists were killed in Andreevka, a spokeswoman for the pro-Russian force in Sloviansk said.

Analysis

A second day of military operations is under way to try to reassert central control here in eastern Ukraine and in particular in the city of Sloviansk, which has become the stronghold of pro-Russian groups.

Ukraine's interior minister has been saying "we will not stop" - suggesting that, unlike in the past when Ukrainian troops have moved in and then withdrawn, these operations will continue.

The interior ministry is also very angry that Moscow has been talking of Kiev carrying out "punitive actions" in the east and that it has been firing on civilians. The government in Ukraine is anxious that it does not give any pretext for Russia to send in its troops. That pretext would be that civilians - Russian-speaking citizens - were in danger and needed protection.

Pro-Russian groups have spoken again of needing peacekeeping troops. That would include Russians coming in to protect civilians - obviously something Kiev wants to avoid.

The military operations come a day after running battles between pro-Kiev groups and separatists in Odessa, which culminated in a deadly fire at the Trade Unions House.

At least 42 people were killed, most of them in the blaze.

'Guests'

Both the OSCE and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a leader of the insurgency in the east, confirmed the release of the international monitors on Saturday.

"As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests," Mr Ponomaryov said.

Russia had sent an envoy to negotiate the releases. Vladimir Lukin said he hoped the "voluntary act" by the separatists would be reciprocated by Kiev, adding: "I would very much like military actions to end."

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman in Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, said Moscow had no sway over the separatists: "From now on Russia essentially has lost its influence over these people because it will be impossible to convince them to lay down arms when there's a direct threat to their lives."

Pro-Russian leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov (left) Separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov (left) said the observers left after celebrating his birthday
Observer German Col Axel Schneider, 3 May German Col Axel Schneider praised his observer team's attitude
Flowers for the victims of the Odessa fire, 3 May Flowers for the victims of the Odessa fire
Pro-Russian activist and a pro-Ukraine supporter scuffle for a Ukrainian flag in Odessa A pro-Russian activist and a pro-Ukraine supporter scuffle for a Ukrainian flag in Odessa on Saturday
Map showing eastern Ukraine

Odessa

  • City founded in 1794 by Empress Catherine the Great
  • Population: 1m
  • Ukraine's third largest city
  • Hosts Ukrainian naval base
  • Population: Ukrainian 62% ethnic Russian 29%

One of the observers, German Col Axel Schneider, said the team had been treated "as good as possible" in what was a "miserable situation".

Western leaders had condemned the abductions.

The observers - four Germans, a Dane, a Pole and a Czech - are not part of the main OSCE monitoring mission, which was agreed after long negotiations by Russia, Ukraine and the US.

Meanwhile, in southern Ukraine, flowers were placed outside the burned out trades union building in Odessa where at least 36 people had lost their lives the day before.

Reports suggest pro-Russian separatists had barricaded themselves inside the building and both sides were throwing petrol bombs.

The deaths sparked another war of words involving the West, Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine's secret service said groups from Russia and Moldova's breakaway region of Trans-Dniester were fomenting the unrest.

But Mr Peskov said: "Kiev and its Western sponsors are practically provoking the bloodshed and bear direct responsibility for it."

Local police chief Petro Lutsiuk told Reuters news agency that more than 130 people had been arrested following the violence in Odessa.W

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