Seven Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) inspectors were freed yesterday in a flashpoint town in east Ukraine where surrounded pro-Moscow rebels are battling a fierce military assault amid a soaring national death toll.
The unexpected release was a bolt of good news in Ukraine’s startling descent into chaos, after a bloody day in which more than 50 people died — most of them in a horrific inferno in the southern city of Odessa.
On the outskirts of Slavyansk, where the OSCE team was held, journalists witnessed a ferocious firefight between Kalashnikov-armed insurgents and soldiers outflanking their checkpoint.
One man was shot dead and lay in the road, while a fatally wounded driver gasped for breath at the wheel of his car shot up about 200m from the checkpoint, said the journalists, who were briefly pinned down between both sides as bullets flew. Armored vehicles fired occasional heavy-caliber rounds at the outnumbered insurgents.
At least nine people died the day before around Slavyansk, when the military tightened its noose on the town, but lost two helicopter gunships to shoulder-launched missiles in the process.
All of Ukraine was reeling yesterday at news of 42 deaths the day before in the southern city of Odessa, where pro-Russian and pro-Kiev militants clashed savagely and repeatedly.
Most of the deaths — many believed to be pro-Russians — were in a trade union building set alight as each side lobbed Molotov cocktails at the other.
The sudden surge in violence sent international tensions between Cold War-era enemies Washington and Moscow soaring.
The US says it is on the verge of declaring sanctions that would pull the rug out from Russia’s already weakening economy if Moscow’s “interference” blocks a May 25 presidential election seen as crucial to stabilizing Ukraine.
However, the Kremlin said it was “absurd” now to go ahead with that poll, adding also that Russia had “lost its influence” over the armed pro-Moscow militants in Ukraine.
Moscow claims the rebels are “protesters” and spontaneously created “self-defense units,” and rejects accusations that Russian military and intelligence commanders are leading them.
However, the OSCE inspectors, who had been held in Slavyansk for more than a week, were freed shortly after a Kremlin envoy arrived in east Ukraine, although they were unable to leave the town immediately because of the fighting.
Russian Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin yesterday told Russian media that he had secured the release of all the people on a list he had.
The European inspectors, though, were bitter toward their captors, who had at one point led them out under armed guard to speak to a media conference.
Russia on Friday called an emergency UN Security Council meeting in which it laid the blame for Ukraine’s unrest on Kiev, which is run by a Western-backed government it deems illegitimate.
Yesterday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was receiving “thousands of calls” from eastern Ukraine requesting “active help.”
Putin “is extremely concerned by the way the situation is developing,” Peskov added, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.