OSCE negotiators late Sunday walked out of a rebel-occupied town hall in east Ukraine with just one of eight of their inspectors being held as “prisoners of war” by pro-Kremlin separatists, an AFP journalist on the scene saw.
The two negotiators left the four-storey grey building in the town of Slavyansk with the freed Swedish officer.
The three made no comment to waiting reporters before driving away in a white car marked with an OSCE logo.
Negotiations continued for the release of the other seven European inspectors — from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark — and four Ukrainian army officers who were seized with them on Friday, a rebel spokeswoman told AFP.
She said the Swede was freed first because he suffers from diabetes.
Hours earlier, the rebels had put the eight inspectors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in front of the cameras of a media conference they called in the town hall.
Speaking through one of their number, a German officer, the Europeans asserted their diplomatic status to the scores of local and foreign journalists.
With four armed rebels watching over them as they spoke, the group said they were in good health.
They said they had been captured by the insurgents on Friday around four kilometres (two miles) outside Slavyansk, as they had been about to return to the regional hub city of Donetsk.
“We are OSCE officers with diplomatic status,” German officer Axel Schneider said.
“I cannot go home of my own free will.”
Schneider added that he did not know the whereabouts of the four Ukrainian officers also detained.
– Not hostages but ‘guests’ –
Earlier, the local rebel leader in the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told AFP and a small group of other reporters the OSCE observers were considered “prisoners of war”.
“In our town, where a war situation is going on, any military personnel who don’t have our permission are considered prisoners of war.”
Ponomaryov, who was wearing a pistol in a holster and was escorted by two armed bodyguards, claimed in the same interview that the observers “are not our hostages — they are our guests”.
He added that the group’s driver, who had been seized with them on Friday, had been released.
He repeated in the interview that the men would be freed only in exchange for the release by Kiev’s authorities of arrested pro-Moscow militants.
And he stressed that the rebels did not consider the detained men part of the main OSCE monitoring mission deployed in Ukraine.
The OSCE headquarters in Vienna has said the military verification mission is a separate operation to its main observer activity, and is under German command.
The pan-European security body said two monitors from its main mission were also held briefly Sunday at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine, before Ukrainian police secured their release.
Asked about Russia’s promise to try to convince the pro-Kremlin rebels to release the observers, Ponomaryov said: “I have no direct contact with Moscow.”
Ponomaryov also said that rebels had separately “arrested” three Ukrainian officers — a colonel, a major and a captain — who he said had been sent towards Slavyansk on a spying mission.
“There were a total of seven in their group and we arrested three of them. We will swiftly get the four others,” he said.
The three officers were being kept in Slavyansk. Ukraine’s SBU security service confirmed they had been seized. Russian television showed the men cuffed, with tape over their eyes, and in their underclothes.
The rebel mayor said there would be no negotiation with Kiev over any of the imprisoned Ukrainians because the pro-Kremlin insurgents see the capital’s Western-backed government as illegitimate.
“There will be no contact with Kiev, only through the intermediary of the OSCE,” he said. Ukraine’s authorities, he said, “understand only the language of force”.
Slavyansk has become the epicentre of the military standoff in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are defying Western pressure to exit occupied buildings.
The Ukrainian army has set up a siege operation around the town of 110,000 to prevent reinforcements reaching the rebels but has stressed it will take a measured response in its military operations in a bid to avoid civilian casualties.