Gunmen refuse to release European observers seized in eastern Ukraine

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russia gunmen refused Saturday to release a group of European observers and accompanying Ukrainian army officers seized a day earlier in this eastern Ukrainian town, the epicenter of the pro-Moscow rebellion.

“These guys are not hostages, but they are our POWs and we intend to keep them in custody,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a local separatist leader and self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, said in an interview with The Times. “They are NATO officers and spies who infiltrated our territory illegally, without our permission.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe inspectors -- from Germany, Poland, Denmark, Czech Republic and Sweden -- “represent the countries which supply the illegitimate government in Kiev with arms and money,” Ponomaryov added. “We may exchange them for our activists held by the fascist junta in Kiev.”

The abduction of the 13-member OSCE team, including the five Ukranian officers, and a driver could not have been undertaken without direct orders from the Kremlin, ”which coordinates and openly supports armed terrorists who seize buildings, capture hostages, torture and kill people,” acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov was quoted as saying in a post on the Ukrainian parliament's website Saturday. “The political leadership of the Russian Federation must bear responsibility for supporting and promoting terrorism.”

Adding heft to the allegations, Russian national Igor Strelkov, identified earlier by Ukraine's Security Service as a Russian military intelligence agent and a principal organizer of the armed mutiny in Slovyansk and other eastern Ukrainian communities, appeared in a video interview published Saturday by the popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda.

In the video, Strelkov, a lean and lanky man in his mid 40s dressed in an unmarked camouflage uniform, acknowledged that his group was behind seizing a police station in Slovyansk on April 12 and downing a Ukrainian military helicopter on Friday.

“I won't deny that the unit I led to Slovyansk was formed on the territory of Crimea,” Strelkov said. “A majority in the unit have combat experience.”

His men, he said, include Russian and Ukrainian citizens who have fought in Chechnya, Central Asia, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria.

The fighters are seeking an independent "Donetsk Republic" in the region surrounding the eastern city of Donetsk, but are inclined to see it join Russia, he said.

“People in central and western Ukraine seriously think bands of mercenaries are acting here ready to kill or hide from bullets behind women and children,” Strelkov said. “This is not so. The people of the Donetsk rebelled against the junta and will fight against it.”

Strelkov is wanted by Ukrainian authorities in the killing of a high-ranking Ukrainian law enforcement officer this month and on suspicion of organizing the kidnapping and slaying of Volodymyr Rybak, a councilman from the neighboring town of Horlivka. Rybak was buried on Thursday.

Strelkov and his team from Russia are deeply respected by a small army of several hundred local volunteers, said Valery Rusanov, 47, a local carpenter and former Soviet army tankman.

“Our task is to assist in organizing a regional referendum that would split the [Donetsk] region away from Ukraine,” said Rusanov, garbed in a camouflage uniform and a tall, black woolen Cossack hat, with a Kalashnikov in his arms. 

Outside Slovyansk, Ukrainian military helicopters hovered low over the local woods and fields Saturday as convoys of Ukrainian armored vehicles circled bumpy dirt roads. Their mission appeared to be to fully encircle Slovyansk, a strategy announced Friday by Ukrainian authorities.

Russia is conducting an undeclared war against Ukraine, acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval charged.

“After annexing Crimea, the Russian Federation concentrated troops along the eastern borders of our state, and its operation in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions aimed at cutting these regions away from our state is in full swing,” Koval told journalists in Kiev, the capital, on Saturday. “In fact, we are talking about an undeclared war unleashed by our northeastern neighbor.”


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Special correspondent Victoria Butenko contributed from Kiev to this report.

[For the Record, 5:22 p.m. PDT:  A previous version of this post incorrectly included Bulgaria and omitted Sweden among the nations represented on the abducted OSCE team.] 

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