SLOVYANSK, Ukraine—Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine detained today seven members of an international observer mission tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Geneva accord signed last week.
The representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are being held in the eastern flashpoint town of Slovyansk under the command of the mercurial former Soviet soldier Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who on Tuesday seized American reporter Simon Ostrovsky, holding him captive for two days.
Hopes for a quick release of the international observers—and five members of the Ukrainian armed forces who were captured along with them—were dashed when Ponomaryov accused the group of harboring a spy.
Ponomaryov labeled Vice News journalist Ostrovsky a spy, too.
Ukrainian officials first raised the alarm early this afternoon when the OSCE team could not be reached by their superiors in Kiev. Officials initially hoped the team, all of whom are members of a military mission, was just having communication difficulties.
Later Ukraine’s interior ministry announced that armed separatist gunmen stopped the OSCE observers when they pulled up in a bus at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Slovyansk seeking to gain access to the town. They were then forced to drive to the state security agency (SBU) building, one of the government installations Ponomaryov and his followers seized earlier this month.
Ponomaryov is an unpredictable and paranoid character given to ranting at Western journalists about their failure to “report the truth” and warning them of dire retribution. He and his aides frequently label foes and critics as fascists or neo-Nazis. The town’s separatist leader clearly enjoys the limelight, holding daily press conferences, and that may explain in part his action today.
Commenting to reporters this evening about the OSCE team, he said: “What the situation was I do not know. It was reported to me that among them was an employee of Kiev’s secret military staff.” He added, ”People who come here as observers bringing with them a real spy: it’s not appropriate.”
It is normal standard procedure for OSCE military missions to be accompanied by military officials from the country they are monitoring. But the point may be lost on Ponomaryov and it certainly will be lost on many of his diehard followers, who tend to be less than worldly, unemployed, ill-educated and in some cases had backgrounds as petty criminals.
But the seizing of the team also may have been decided on as a response to Ukrainian military efforts today to start blockading Slovyansk in a bid to isolate it and to stop the free movement of separatists in and out of the town.
Yesterday, Kiev’s anti-terrorist units from the SBU and the interior ministry attacked a separatist checkpoint on the edge of town, killing up to five pro-Russian militants. Following threats from Moscow of military intervention, Ukrainian officials halted the operation and this afternoon announced they would not mount an assault on the town but would instead encircle it with checkpoints of their own.
The Daily Beast saw the encircling operation unfold this afternoon with new checkpoints springing up on major roads and intersections, including along the main highway linking the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk that bypasses Slovyansk.
Several separatist checkpoints had been abandoned. And the new government ones were protected by armored vehicles and by at least 20—and in some cases up to 50—heavily armed soldiers from special army and intelligence units.
The kidnapping of the OSCE team may come as an embarrassment to Moscow, which has signed off on the OSCE mission and its role in the implementation of the Geneva accord that Russia agreed to. It coincided also with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreeing with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the OSCE mission should play an active role in attempts to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
A Ukrainian interior official says the Slovyansk separatists are refusing to release the OSCE team and have said they will discuss the matter with Russian officials first.