Pro-Russia Militants Release OSCE Observers -- Update

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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By Paul Sonne

MOSCOW--Military observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who have been held hostage in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk for more than a week have been freed, the Vienna-based organization said Saturday.

The seven officials from Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic, including a translator, were released on Saturday, Kremlin special envoy Vladimir Lukin told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. He said the five Ukrainian military personnel detained with the mission were also released. A week ago, one of the detained observers, a Swedish major, was released for medical reasons.

"They have freed all the 12 people on my list," Mr. Lukin, who helped negotiate the release on the Kremlin's behalf, said Saturday. "This was a voluntary humanitarian act, and we are very thankful to the bosses of the city for it."

Mr. Lukin said he hoped the act of goodwill would lead to other humanitarian acts, including an end to clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia militants and a decision to sit down at the negotiating table.

In a tweet, the OSCE confirmed the hostages were being freed.

Pro-Russia militants who have locked down the east Ukraine city of Slovyansk and demanded a referendum on their region's future took the inspection mission hostage outside the city on April 25. The militant group's leaders have echoed the Kremlin in denouncing the new government in Kiev that toppled pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in late February after months of protests. They accused the OSCE observers of being NATO spies.

The observers are members of their home countries' militaries and part of an inspection team that arrived in Ukraine under an OSCE pact called the Vienna Document, which sets out guidelines for exchanging military information and hosting inspections. They aren't part of the OSCE special monitoring mission, which is made up of civilians and operates in southeast Ukraine.

The release of the observers comes as the Ukrainian militarily closes in on the rebel-held city of Slovyansk, encircling the city in the hope of containing the unrest in the country's east. Skirmishes between the pro-Russia rebels and the Ukrainian forces broke out Friday as the military began moving closer to the city.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Saturday that the government is continuing its antiterrorist military operation in the east of the country. The national guard and armed forces took over a television tower in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk overnight, the minister said on his Facebook page.

Kramatorsk is located near to Slovyansk, a stronghold of pro-Russian separatists where militants shot down two helicopters on Friday, killing two Ukrainian soldiers.

Kiev launched the antiterrorist operation in mid-April in an attempt to regain control of eastern Ukraine.

A senior lawmaker for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative parties on Saturday welcomed the release of the military observers.

"The release of the hostages is welcome. However, this was of course the only possible outcome. The hostages were members of an internationally recognized observer mission. Their abduction was entirely unjustified," said Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy chairman of the parties' parliamentary group.

Olga Razumovskaya in Moscow and Neetha Mahadevan in Frankfurt contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Sonne at paul.sonne@wsj.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires


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