Report: pro-Russian rebels free 4 OSCE observers

Associated Press
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media after his talks with his Fijian counterpart Inoke Kubuabola after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, June 27, 2014.Lavrov welcomed the Ukrainian president’s intention to extend a cease-fire in the east, but warned Ukraine against putting ultimatums to insurgents. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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MOSCOW (AP) — Pro-Russian insurgents released four European observers Saturday who they had held captive for weeks, the Interfax news agency reported.

The four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been freed and are en route to the eastern city of Donetsk, the news agency quoted the press service of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic as saying.

The release followed Friday's European Union summit, which decided not to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia for destabilizing eastern Ukraine, but gave the Russian government and pro-Russian insurgents until Monday to take steps to improve the situation.

The EU leaders said Russia and the rebels should take steps to ease the violence, including releasing all captives, retreating from border checkpoints, agreeing on a way to verify the cease-fire and launching "substantial negotiations" on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan.

"We have fulfilled our obligations before the Ukrainian side. All eight observers have been released," Alexander Borodai, one of the leaders of the insurgents, said, according to Interfax.

OSCE lost contact with four monitors from its Donetsk team and four monitors from its Luhansk team in late May. The Donetsk team was released earlier this week.

Ukraine on Friday signed a free-trade pact with the EU, the very deal that a former Ukrainian president dumped under pressure from Moscow in November, fueling huge protests that eventually drove him from power. Moscow responded by annexing the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March, and a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine erupted the month after, leading to the developments that have brought Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War times.

The U.S. and the EU have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and threatened to impose more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of Russia's economy if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate the crisis.

Earlier Saturday, Russia's foreign minister accused the United States of encouraging Ukraine to challenge Moscow and heavily weighing in on the European Union.

In televised remarks, Sergey Lavrov said that "our American colleagues still prefer to push the Ukrainian leadership toward a confrontational path."

He added that chances for settling the Ukrainian crisis would have been higher if it only depended on Russia and Europe.

The weeklong cease-fire, which both sides have been accused of violating, expired at 10 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) on Friday, but Poroshenko quickly declared its extension until 10 p.m. local time Monday. He warned, however, that the cease-fire could be terminated in areas where rebels violate it.

A leader of the insurgents, Alexander Borodai, promised to abide by the extended cease-fire after Friday's troika talks that included a former Ukrainian president who represented the Kiev government, the Russian ambassador and an OSCE envoy.

He rejected the EU leaders' demand to retreat from three checkpoints on the border with Russia captured by the rebels, but invited OSCE to send its monitors to the border crossings and any other areas in the east.

Borodai also said that the rebels have offered the government that the conflicting parties free all the captives they hold. He demanded that the Ukrainian government pull back its forces as a condition for holding meaningful talks to settle the crisis.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the situation in the east was largely quiet overnight and there were no casualties among Ukrainian troops despite sporadic shooting. But later on Saturday, Ukrainian military spokesman Olexiy Dmitrashkovskiy said that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and four others were wounded in a rebel shelling near Slovyansk, a key flashpoint in the insurgency, Interfax reported.

Rebels, in turn, claimed that Ukrainian troops tried to capture one of the checkpoints on the Russian border, which they control, but were rebuffed.

Russian officials said that several Ukrainian shells landed on Russian territory early Saturday, and one shell fragment hit the border checkpoint on the Russian side of the border, but there were no injuries.

The insurgents also descended on a Ukrainian National Guards unit in Donetsk, demanding that the troops leave or join the rebels' ranks. None of the troops voiced a desire to switch sides. There was no fighting there.

As part of his peace plan, Poroshenko this week also submitted a set of constitutional amendments that would give broader powers to the regions and allow local authorities to have more say on such issues as language and culture. In an address to the nation Saturday, he voiced hope that the move would strengthen the country's unity.

Lavrov acknowledged that Russia has some leverage with the rebels, pointing at their move this week to release four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after weeks of captivity, but claimed that Moscow's influence is limited.

"There are reasons to believe that they hear us on other aspects of Russian position regarding the crisis in Ukraine, but that doesn't mean that they immediately move to heed our calls," he said. "These people have their own vision, it's their land and they want to be its masters, they want to negotiate with the central government on what terms it can be done."

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Balint Szlanko contributed to this report from Donetsk, Ukraine.

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