DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — An insurgent leader in eastern Ukraine said Thursday that his fighters are holding four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and promised that they would be released imminently.
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, a city in the Donetsk region, told The Associated Press that the monitors, who are from Turkey, Switzerland, Estonia and Denmark, were safe.
“I addressed the OSCE mission to warn them that their people should not over the coming week travel in areas under our control. And they decided to show up anyway,” Ponomarev said.
“We will deal with this and then release them,” he said, without setting any specific conditions or timeframe.
The OSCE said it had lost contact with one of its four-man monitoring teams in Donetsk on Monday evening. Rebels have previously kidnapped military observers working under the auspices of the OSCE.
Slovyansk, a city about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk, has seen constant clashes recently and residential areas regularly came under mortar shelling from government forces, prompting some residents to flee the fighting.
The OSCE monitors have been deployed to Ukraine to monitor security situation following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a pro-Russia separatist insurgency that has engulfed regions in eastern Ukraine. They also observed Sunday’s presidential vote, won by billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko has promised to negotiate with people in the east, where insurgents have seized government buildings and fought government troops for a month-and-half. But he also vowed to continue a military operation to uproot the armed rebels and bring it to a quick end.
In the most ferocious battle yet, rebels in Donetsk tried to take control of its airport Monday but were repelled by Ukrainian forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. Dozens of men were killed and some morgues were overflowing Tuesday. Some insurgent leaders said up to 100 fighters may have been killed.
The mood in Donetsk was calm Thursday, although many businesses have stopped opening their doors over fear of possible renewed fighting.
The Kiev government condemns the roiling insurgency as the work of “terrorists” bent on destroying the country and blames Russia for fomenting it. Russia denies the accusations, saying it has no influence over rebels, who insist they are only protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population of the east.
The rebels have declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions independent following controversial referendums rejected as a sham by Ukraine and the West. They have pleaded to join Russia, but President Vladimir Putin has ignored their appeal in an apparent bid to de-escalate tensions with the West and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Putin has supported a Swiss-brokered peace plan of the OSCE that calls for ending hostilities and launching a political dialogue. Russia also welcomed Sunday’s vote and said it would be ready to work with Poroshenko, but strongly urged the Ukrainian government to end its military operation in the east.
While Russia denies that it has sent any troops into eastern Ukraine, separatist leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic acknowledged that their army has many foreigners, including some from the Russian province of Chechnya.
Alexander Borodai, who calls himself the prime minister of the republic, said Wednesday that the fighters from the northern Caucasus, although not ethnically Russian, “share much of the same ideology.”
Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, on Wednesday rejected allegations he had dispatched paramilitary forces under his command to Ukraine, but added that he can’t stop fellow Chechens acting on their own from joining the fight.