Fri, May 30, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Rebels holding Europeans in Ukraine

RELEASE PROMISED:The rebel leader in Slavyansk said the four civilian monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were all unharmed

AFP, KIEV

Separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine said yesterday that they were holding four unarmed European monitors who went missing three days earlier, but promised to release them soon.

The latest abduction in a vital rust belt region overrun by pro-Russian militants since last month underscores the trouble newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will have in keeping his ex-Soviet republic whole.

Fresh fighting was reported yesterday across parts of eastern Ukraine as the violence continued unabated after having already claimed about 200 lives.

The Western-backed leader — winner of 54.7 percent of Sunday’s presidential vote — must first avert another showdown with Russia that could see Ukraine cut off from gas supplies by the start of next week.

The 48-year-old confectionary tycoon reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday by announcing that he intended to speak to the Russian leader when they attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.

The talks would be the first between the two neighbor’s presidents since a popular uprising chased a Kremlin-backed regime from power in February and installed a new administration intent on breaking Russia’s historic hold on Ukraine.

The self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk said the four civilian monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were “all fine.”

“No one arrested them. We detained them. Now we will work out who they are, where they were going and why, and we will let them go,” rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

He further suggested that the team could have been involved in espionage.

A source at the organization told reporters that the team — a Dane, an Estonian, a Turk and a Swiss national — included one woman and that negotiations for their release had been ongoing for some time.

The organization source added that the group appeared to have been at one stage held by Russian Cossacks who were helping the rebels in the eastern region of Lugansk.

A second group of 11 observers was detained in the neighboring Donetsk Province on Wednesday. The organization said it had managed to re-establish contact with them by the end of the night.

Swiss President and OSCE chief Didier Burkhalter slammed the detentions as “acts of sabotage.”

A spokeswoman in Kiev denied reports that the Special Monitoring Mission might wrap up its operations in Ukraine out of security concern.

Cash-strapped Ukraine had until midnight yesterday to pay Russia US$2 billion under an EU-brokered agreement or face a halt in gas supplies next week that would also impact parts of Europe.

Russia and Ukraine launched their third gas war in less than a decade after Moscow decided to cancel its previous rebates and nearly double the price it charges Kiev for gas after the Kremlin-backed president’s fall.

Ukraine refused to pay in protest and has since balked at the terms of an interim deal negotiated with the help of a top EU energy official that would have seen Russia receive a downpayment on Kiev’s debt by yesterday.

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