THE Ukrainian drama becomes ever darker. Armed rebels who hold the eastern Ukrainian town of Sloviansk today paraded seven captured European military officers whom they have held since Friday. They were introduced by the self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev. In an extraordinarily dignified performance Colonel Axel Schneider from Germany said: “We are not prisoners of war, we are guests of Mayor Ponomarev.”
Although Colonel Schneider spoke without interruption from Mr Ponomarev, it was clear that he did so under duress. He said he wanted to talk to let the families of the officers know they were okay and had not been harmed. Armed men were present in the room. Later in the day, one officer was released on medical grounds.
The unarmed military observers, visiting the region under the terms of the Vienna Document of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, were snatched outside Sloviansk. At first, said Holger Schmuck, one of the officers, they were stopped by a group of armed men whom he described as “usuals”. Then a highly disciplined military group arrived and escorted them back to Sloviansk. He would not say if he thought that the second group were locals or not. The Ukrainian authorities have said that much of the rebel activity is being coordinated by military intelligence officials from Russia.
The captured party includes three Germans, one Pole, one Swede, one Czech and one Dane. Five Ukrainian officers were with the party. Russia, a member of the OSCE, has said it will intervene to help release the men but Mr Ponomarev said he had had no contact about the matter from Russia.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told RT, the Russian state television channel that “the NATO intelligence operatives will be exchanged for our prisoners…I don’t see another way for them to go free.” Colonel Schneider looked baffled when Russian reporters asked him about alleged spying equipment they had been shown. He said they had cameras and a normal road map and nothing else.
The capture of a team including military officers from NATO countries may be seen by the Russian side as a huge propaganda coup. On April 25th Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said: “The West wants to seize Ukraine so to speak, being solely motivated by its own geopolitical ambitions so to speak and not the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
The officers are fortunate that their foreign status gives them a large measure of protection. Russian journalists were called to the seized state-security building in Sloviansk overnight, where they interrogated three bloodied, bowed and blindfolded men in their underpants. They were reported to be captured Ukrainian security-service officers. They appeared to be in need of urgent medical attention.
While the OSCE officers were giving their press conference, a crowd—some members of which were armed with baseball bats and clubs—surrounded the local television station in the regional capital of Donetsk. The building was soon captured and the rebel flag raised above it. Every day, incident by incident, the situation is deteriorating and moving towards major armed conflict of one form or another.
Source: The Economist