Hostages in Ukraine labelled prisoners of war by rebel leader

Members of German-led military observer team paraded before media

Vyachislav Ponomaryov (left), the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, and Col Axel Schneider of Germany (right), the leader of a group of European military observers held by Ponomaryov’s group, during a news conference at city hall in Slovyansk, Ukraine, yesterday. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Vyachislav Ponomaryov (left), the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, and Col Axel Schneider of Germany (right), the leader of a group of European military observers held by Ponomaryov’s group, during a news conference at city hall in Slovyansk, Ukraine, yesterday. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 06:47

Members of a German-led military observer team being held hostage in the separatist stronghold of Slavyansk, eastern Ukraine, were paraded before the media yesterday with a rebel leader calling them “prisoners of war”.

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-declared “people’s mayor”, made the remarks on a weekend that saw separatists announce a May 11th referendum on the creation of a Donbass People’s Republic and take control of regional television amid further signs of deteriorating security and rising tension in the east.

Alexander Schneider, a German colonel on the eight-member mission under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said they were being held as “guests” of the mayor.


Exchanged for prisoners
The group, detained near Slavyansk on Friday along with five Ukrainians, said they had not been mistreated but wanted to go home soon. The rebels have previously said the observers would be exchanged for separatist prisoners being held by the Kiev authorities.

Meanwhile, Russian television ran reports on three Ukrainian men alleged to be state security officials who were captured by separatists on Saturday. The men showed signs of having been severely beaten.

“They were captured while executing a combat mission with the goal of capturing members of the Donbass People’s Militia in the town of Horlivka,” said Igor Strelkov, the head of the Donbass People’s Militia.

Mr Strelkov, who the Ukrainian government claims is a Russian intelligence officer, said the three had resisted arrest.

Also yesterday, uniformed men seized control of the Donbass regional TV station in Donetsk, facing no resistance from police, and brought in technicians to turn off Ukrainian programming and turn on Russia 24, the state broadcaster.

The US and European Union were insisting yesterday that fresh sanctions on Russia were imminent. On NBC’s Meet the Press , Tony Blinken, US President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the measures, which could come as early as today, would be targeted “to go after people very close to [President Vladimir Putin], go after the entities that they [the Russian authorities] control”.

He added: “They’re going to have to make a choice. Are they going to persist in the actions they are taking to destabilise Ukraine, or are they going to save their economy?”

Western ambassadors responsible for security issues will meet in Brussels today and are expected to approve the addition of 15 more Russian and Crimean individuals to the lists of people facing asset freezes and travel bans.


Sign of weakness
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said that EU foreign ministers would meet soon but diplomats fear that such an emergency council could prove to be a sign of weakness if it were held before the 28-member states had agreed a plan of action on economic sanctions.

The hostage crisis and parading of bloodied men is adding to already high tensions as Russia builds up forces on the border as a prelude to what Ukrainian leaders claim could be an invasion. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)