Ukraine rebels seize mediators as West readies sanctions

Ukrainian PM says Russia risks starting ‘third World War’

Pro-Russian armed militants inspect a truck near Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Pro-Russian armed militants inspect a truck near Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits


Ukrainian rebels seized a bus carrying international monitors yesterday near their stronghold of Slovyansk, as Kiev’s troops surrounded the town and the West prepared to impose more sanctions on Moscow unless it reined in the militants.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-declared “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, said that among a group of observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) states “was an employee of the Kiev secret military staff”.

“People who come here as observers for the European community bringing with them a real spy – that is inappropriate,” he said.

Kiev’s interior ministry said the group comprised seven representatives from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Denmark, and five members of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Contrary to earlier reports, they are not OSCE monitors but were sent to Ukraine by some of its 57 member states.

Talks under way
A spokesman for the interior ministry said talks were under way with members of Mr Ponomaryov’s militia, who had refused to free the observers and wanted to talk to the “competent organs” in Russia.

Ukrainian officials said troops had surrounded Slovyansk, a depressed industrial town of about 130,000 people, in the latest phase of an “anti-terrorist” operation against heavily armed rebels who have seized local official buildings.

Several militants were killed on Thursday as government forces stormed rebel checkpoints around the town.

Kiev says its forces are targeting armed Moscow-backed separatists, organised and assisted by Kremlin agents, and prime minister Arseniy Yatsyenuk accused Russia yesterday of trying to start a “third World War” by destabilising or invading Ukraine.

In response to the military crackdown, Russia on Thursday launched war games near Ukraine’s border, and Kiev officials said Moscow’s forces had come within 1km of the frontier. Russia wants Ukraine to withdraw troops from the area.

The West accuses Moscow of stoking tension in Ukraine, where a new government is trying to take the country towards the EU following protests that ousted Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich in February.

US president Barack Obama spoke to several EU leaders yesterday, and noted that “the United States is prepared to impose targeted sanctions to respond to Russia’s latest action,” the White House said.

“The leaders agreed to work closely together, and through the G7 and European Union, to co-ordinate additional steps to impose costs on Russia,” it added.

After talking to Mr Obama and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “given the absence of progress, we have to think about – and not just think about, but act on – the option of new sanctions.”