Pro-Russia gunmen on Saturday released a team of European arms inspectors and accompanying Ukrainian army officers who had been held for more than a week in the eastern town of Slovyansk.
The release, described by a Kremlin envoy as a "goodwill move," came a day after violence between government supporters and Russia-backed militants across Ukraine appeared to be spiraling out of control. On Friday, the separatists shot down two military helicopters trying to help retake Slovyansk, and 42 people were killed in fighting in the southern port city of Odessa.
The less violent tone Saturday does not necessarily signal a new dawn in the troubled area. "Now it has been a quiet day, but as our European guests are gone we are preparing for a new attack," said the self-proclaimed pro-Russia mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov.
The six freed inspectors from Germany, Denmark, Czech Republic and Poland and their German interpreter were on a mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on April 25 when they were abducted by gunmen near Slovyansk.
They were released Saturday without preconditions, said Vladimir Lukin, head of the Moscow delegation in Slovyansk, according to Ukrainskaya Pravda, a liberal online journal.
Ponomaryov had initially accused them of being North Atlantic Treaty Organization spies "on our territory uncontrolled by the junta in Kiev" and told The Times last week that he intended to exchange them for separatists held by Ukrainian law enforcement.
However, he changed his tone Saturday and said they had never been his hostages but "dear guests."
"We had a nice little party with them yesterday [Friday] with champagne and all," Ponomaryov said in a telephone interview with The Times. "This morning our friend Vladimir Lukin came and we entrusted them in his care. They should be on their way to Donetsk now. They must have enjoyed their visit and our hospitality."
The pro-Russia gunmen also released five Ukrainian army officers who had accompanied the inspectors.
Despite the incident, OSCE is not planning to fold its mission in eastern Ukraine, an official said.
"Clearly security is a significant concern in the region … but we believe that the requirement for dialogue is as strong as ever," Mark Etherington, deputy chief of the OSCE special monitoring mission, said Saturday at a briefing in Donetsk. "The mission is in fact expanding its activities. We have about 150 monitors on the ground, now we will go to 500 within the next couple of months."
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday called on the Russians to have Ukrainian separatists pull back, and noted U.S. and German warnings that if the militants interfere with the planned May 25 Ukrainian election, Western governments will impose broad economic sanctions on Moscow.
In an appearance in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kerry said he had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that "it is important for Russia to withdraw support from the separatists and to assist in removing people from the buildings and beginning to de-escalate the situation."
He said the Obama administration was pleased by the release of the Western monitors, but "there are many other steps that have to be taken in order to be able to de-escalate the situation."
Ukrainian authorities accused Russia of setting up the capture and subsequent release of the inspectors.
A statement posted Saturday on the Ukrainian Security Service website said, "The recording of the [intercepted] telephone conversation between Russian Federation special envoy Vladimir Lukin and leader of the armed terrorists, Igor Girkin, shows that the official Russian side coordinates the actions of the militants and has direct influence over their decisions."
The service also posted a recording in which it said Lukin asked Girkin whether he "had objections" to handing over the hostages to him. "I have no objections for one simple reason," Girkin said in the recording. "All this has already been discussed with me."
In the recorded conversation, Lukin was said to have asked Girkin whether he could come to pick up hostages "right now," on Friday, or the next morning. Girkin replied that Saturday was better because he had to deal with organizing separatist defenses to repel the government attack.
Slovyansk was tightly surrounded Friday and nine checkpoints were seized by the government, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook account.
Ponomaryov confirmed to The Times that a serious battle had taken place Friday on the outskirts of Slovyansk, and four separatists were killed and two wounded. Avakov also reported heavy fighting near Kramatorsk, the site of a television tower.
"Together with the national guard units, [Ukraine army] paratroops won back the television tower from the terrorists in Kramatorsk," said a statement posted on the Defense Ministry's website. "After mopping up and examining the territory it was established that there were about 200 militants there — everywhere fire positions had been prepared."
Two paratroops died and seven were wounded in the overnight battle, the statement said. Four residents were killed in the fighting at Kramatorsk and 17 wounded on Saturday, UNIAN news agency reported.
On Saturday, Valery Bolotov, a self-proclaimed governor of the neighboring Luhansk region controlled by separatists, publicly declared war on Ukraine's interim government, Ukrinform news agency reported.
"We will be defending our land from neo-fascist invaders and murderers to the last drop of blood," Bolotov told journalists in Luhansk. "Our first goal is Kiev. I mean we are not going to sit in defense and wait until we are crushed and burnt."
Bolotov referred to the death of more than 40 people in violent clashes Friday in the Black Sea port of Odessa. About 30 pro-Russia demonstrators, some of whom had reportedly been shooting at pro-Ukraine-unity demonstrators, died of smoke inhalation after a trade union building caught fire. Police said a Molotov cocktail set off the blaze.
More than 170 people were arrested Friday in Odessa, the report said.
In Donetsk, more than 3,000 pro-Russia demonstrators gathered Saturday afternoon for a mourning rally dedicated to the violent deaths of their fellow separatists in Odessa.
The demonstrators glorified former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, threatened "death to Kiev fascists" and chanted, "Russia, Russia, Russia!"
Then they marched to the Security Service regional office and captured it without a shot fired.
"We knew they were planning to seize our building and evacuated all weapons and documents in the previous days," a high-ranking local Security Service officer told The Times on condition of anonymity. "We don't want unnecessary casualties. Let them have our empty office for a while."
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times