Killings and kidnappings stoke terror in eastern Ukraine

Masked militants now control several towns and cities, writes Daniel McLaughlin in Donetsk

Volodymyr Rybak was last seen alive on Thursday of last week, being bundled into a car by masked men in camouflage after trying to remove the flag of pro-Russian rebels from the town hall in Horlivka, eastern Ukraine.

The town councillor’s wife, Elena, identified his body on Wednesday. “There were many knife wounds,” she said. “It was terrible.”

Mr Rybak’s body was found on the bank of a river that runs through the depressed industrial region of Donetsk, with that of another man who is yet to be identified. Police said they drowned after being tortured and thrown into the water unconscious but alive. The killings tightened a knot of fear in the heart of eastern Ukraine, where masked militants now control several towns and cities and many roads, apparently with covert support of Russian special forces or former servicemen.

Kiev says Moscow’s agents are working with criminal elements to destabilise the region or even separate it from Ukraine, and accuse this alliance of using terror tactics to cow the local population and silence coverage and criticism of its actions.


Ukraine's security service said Igor Strelkov and Igor Bezler, allegedly current and former lieutenant colonels of Russian military intelligence respectively, were behind Mr Rybak's murder. In the early hours of last Sunday, three men guarding a rebel checkpoint near the militants' stronghold city of Slovyansk were shot dead, in a brutal attack that shattered an Easter "truce" and appalled and terrified locals in equal measure.

Moscow and the rebels blamed Right Sector, a nationalist group that has become the stuff of nightmares in eastern Ukraine, largely through its depiction by Kremlin-controlled media as a roving band of murderous, Russian-hating fascists.

The organisation denied any involvement in the killings, and Kiev accused Russia’s agents of carrying out the murders to raise tension and fear in a region that it has threatened to invade if necessary to protect its citizens and its interests.

Already set on edge by the appearance of roadblocks and hundreds of men in camouflage and masks, many openly carrying guns and knives, eastern Ukraine is now in danger of slipping into cycle of bloodshed that was hard to imagine a few weeks ago – when Russian troops wearing no insignia and local gunmen seized Crimea.

Officials say violent crime has surged with the proliferation of guns, many of which were taken by militants from police and security service buildings: in Horlivka’s improbably named Café Barcelona on Saturday, a man walked in and shot dead two customers; the town’s rebel mayor also stepped down after claiming to have received death threats.

At least four Ukrainian journalists were missing last night, and believed to be held in Slovyansk, where US reporter Simon Ostrovsky was spending a second evening in captivity.

“This journalist, according to our information, has dual citizenship – American and Israeli,” said Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the pro-Russian, self-declared “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk. “We have information that he is an informer for Right Sector,” he added. “He’s being held in decent conditions. He’s being fed.”

Mr Ponomaryov, a former Soviet soldier missing two fingers from his left hand, also told Russia’s website: “We need prisoners. We need bargaining chips. Many of our comrades are behind bars. They (Ukrainian security services) take them to Kiev and torture them. Now we are doing the same — taking prisoners, that is.”

Several other foreign journalists have been detained more briefly in recent days, adding to rising international alarm.

Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, called "in particular on Russia to use its leverage to ensure an immediate end to kidnappings and killings in eastern Ukraine."

Moscow, for its part, says the United States is “running the show” in Ukraine and seeking to undermine and discredit Russia.

Dunja Mijatovic, the media freedom representative for the 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said she was “deeply concerned about the ongoing negative pattern in relation to journalists’ safety in Ukraine.”

“I call on all those responsible to stop harassing and attacking journalists and let them do their job. Simon Ostrovsky should be released immediately.”