They sat at a long table, appearing tense and tired Sunday as they looked over the heads of gathered journalists toward the armed, masked men in unmarked uniforms sitting at the back of the nearly empty auditorium. Then the leader of the unsmiling group on stage spoke.
They were “guests” of self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, “a man of honor” at whose initiative they were holding this news conference in “this bizarre situation,” said Col. Axel Schneider, a German. They were there because “we wanted our families to see us.”
Schneider, head of a group of seven European military observers and an interpreter taken captive by pro-Russian gunmen in southeastern Ukraine on Friday, spoke with a tense dignity, measuring out each word he said in English or German.
“We are absolutely in the hands of Mayor Ponomaryov and our release can be [through] him talking with our countries’ representatives,” Schneider said. “We can’t take part in the negotiations, and the procedure of our release is unknown.”
A bus carrying the observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and four Ukraine army officers accompanying them on their inspection trip across southeastern Ukraine was stopped outside Slovyansk. The observers, caught up in the conflict between gunmen and the interim Ukrainian government, were placed in a cell in the basement of a Ukraine Security Service building used by the separatists for two weeks as their command center in the town.
Later in the day, the gunmen released one of the observers after talks with three OSCE negotiators who arrived without escort on Sunday.
“The guy was from Sweden, which is not a NATO country, and we released him today to show that we are good negotiators,” Ponomaryov told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday night, while declining to comment on the other results of the negotiations. “Tomorrow will bring more food for thought.”
The others -- three Germans observers, a Pole, a Dane, a Czech and a German translator -- remained in detention.
At the news conference, Schneider said conditions of their detention at first “were miserable, but we made the best of it and our guards were kind to us. But since yesterday, we were moved to a more comfortable room where we have daylight and air conditioning.”
Two of the four Ukrainian officers were moved to a better lodging along with the inspectors but the other two stayed in the basement, he said. None of the Ukrainians were present at the news conference.
“They are POWs from NATO countries and they were trespassing on our territory uncontrolled by the junta in Kiev, which, they said, invited them to Ukraine,” Ponomaryov said earlier in the day in an interview with The Times.
During the news conference, Ponomaryov played the caring host, serving glasses of water to the inspectors and responding with a wide smile, flashing a gold tooth, when the German colonel said that they were not POWs but “guests of Mayor Ponomaryov and we are treated as such.”
Schneider said that they “promised Mayor Ponomaryov that we will tell in our countries what the people in this town suffer.” When asked what suffering of the local people he was talking about, Schneider said the observers had learned about their “miserable” lives from guards.
Ponomaryov denied that the Russian government asked him to release the inspectors and called “delirious” the allegations that the gunmen were planning to use them as human shields against any attack by Ukrainian forces.
“We are also officers and we ought to observe the officers’ code of honor,” Ponomaryov said. “We will discuss the conditions of their release with OSCE representatives.”
“The situation with setting free the OSCE observers remains complicated,” Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshitsya, wrote on his Twitter feed.
The gunmen in Slovyansk acknowledge holding more than a dozen other prisoners, three of them reportedly Ukrainian journalists.
On Saturday they captured three Ukraine Security Service agents in Gorlivka who sought to arrest a suspected Russian agent wanted in the death of a local politician and councilman, said a statement posted on the agency’s website.
A Russian pro-Kremlin tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, posted a video of the interrogation by Slovyansk gunmen, showing the three blindfolded men sitting without trousers on and with their arms bound behind their backs. The prisoners had visible bruises, along with blood stains on their legs and on the head of one man who appeared to be in pain. The men confirmed on camera they were security agents on a mission.
As OSCE representatives were conducting negotiations in Slovyansk, a pro-Russia mob broke down the gates of a regional state television and radio company building in the eastern city of Donetsk and seized the building as about 500 protesters outside chanted “Slovyansk is a hero city,” UNIAN news agency reported. Several dozen nearby police officers did not stop them, the report said.
In the meantime, Ukraine security forces in armored personnel vehicles were setting up more checkpoints around Slovyansk.
At one checkpoint, the soldiers were digging trenches alongside the curbs and setting up signs that read “Mines.”