A group of eight European military observers being held prisoner by pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine have appeared in public for the first time since their capture and gave assurances that they were not being mistreated.
Seven officers from the observer team and their translator were brought into a room of waiting journalists in the separatist-held administration building in the city of Slovyansk on Sunday.
Guards in camouflage fatigues and balaclavas, carrying Kalashnikov rifles, were also in the room as journalists spoke to the observers.
Colonel Axel Schneider from Germany, who appeared nervous as he spoke for the group, stressed they were on a diplomatic mission under the auspices of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) when they were detained on Friday and were not spying for NATO as the separatists claim.
Schneider said he understood that the self-proclaimed city mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, could use the observers as a bargaining chip.
Later, one of the men, a Swedish national, was released by the group on medical grounds.
“He has a mild form of diabetes and so we decided to let him go,” Stella Korosheva, a spokeswoman for the separatist mayor told reporters.
Ponomaryov said on Saturday that they could be released in exchange for jailed pro-Russia activists and told reporters that he was heading into talks with the mediators.
“In our town, where a war situation is going on, any military personnel who don’t have our permission are considered prisoners of war,” he told reporters.
Ponomaryov said he was preparing to meet OSCE mediators to negotiate the terms of the group’s release.
“The mayor of this city granted us his protection and he regarded us as his guests,” Schneider told journalists in Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine.
“We were accommodated in a cellar. We had to set up conditions for ourselves,” said Schneider, describing what happened after they were seized. “Since yesterday we’ve been in a more comfortable room with heating. We have daylight, and an air conditioner.”
“I can tell you that the word of the mayor is a word of honour. We have not been touched.”
Schneider told reporters that none of the European delegation were sick.
“We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries,” Schneider said. “We wish from the bottom of our hearts to go back to our nations as soon and as quickly as possible.”
Ponomaryov, who was wearing a pistol in a holster and was escorted by two armed bodyguards, claimed in the interview that the OSCE observers “are not our hostages — they are our guests”.
Asked about Russia’s promise to do everything it could to convince the pro-Kremlin rebels in Slovyansk to release the OSCE military observers, Ponomaryov said he had “no direct contact with Moscow.”
|Three members of Ukraine’s special forces bearing signs of torture have been paraded before the media [Al Jazeera]|
Ponomaryov also said that pro-Russian separatists had separately “arrested” three Ukrainian officers, a colonel, a major and a captain, he said had been sent towards Slovyansk on a spying mission.
“There were a total of seven in their group and we arrested three of them. We will swiftly get the four others,” he said.
Footage has emerged showing the three captured officers bearing signs of torture, being paraded before the media in Slovyansk.
Ukraine’s SBU security service confirmed the three officers had been seized. The rebel mayor said there would be no contact with Kiev over the imprisoned Ukrainians because the pro-Kremlin separatists see the capital’s Western-backed government as illegitimate.
“There will be no contact with Kiev, only through the intermediary of the OSCE,” he said. Ukraine’s authorities, he said, “understand only the language of force.”