Russian-backed separatists “paraded” their prisoners through Slavyansk today, ultimately releasing one international observer on medical grounds. Three more Ukrainian servicemen, and the regional TV and radio headquarters in Donetsk, were captured by the gunmen.
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Today Russian-backed separatists stormed a regional TV and radio station in Donetsk in an effort to shut down local broadcasting and replace it with Russian state-operated propaganda outlets. The Guardian reports:
A crowd of about 300 left a rally in Donetsk’s Lenin Square and marched through the city centre, pulling down Ukrainian flags.
With police looking on but not intervening, the activists surged into the regional television centre. Masked youths, armed with baseball bats, ran up the flag of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” from the roof of the Stalinist neo-classical building.
Its shaken director, Oleg Dzholos, emerged soon afterwards to say that the separatists had brought with them a technician who was turning off Kiev television and replacing it with Rossiya 24. The Russian state channel calls Ukraine’s pro-western leaders “fascists” and frequently runs montages of them with footage of the Nazis.
“We hope to continue broadcasting,” Dzholos said. His staff of 250 would be back at work on Monday morning, he said. With men in balaclavas and military fatigues standing on his steps, he admitted: “It’s difficult to work in these circumstances. I hope we might be safe here.”
Meanwhile, one of the eight international OSCE observers who were kidnapped on Friday was released. Swedish Officer Major Thomas Johansson, who suffers from diabetes, was released, but the separatist leader and self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, Vyachislav Ponomaryov, refused to release the other observers. CBS reports:
Col. Axel Schneider from Germany, who spoke for the group of military observers, stressed that they were on a diplomatic mission under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe when detained Friday and weren’t spying for NATO, as the insurgents claim.
The observers, who appeared nervous, were in the custody of armed men wearing camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas, who escorted them into the Slovyansk city hall for the news conference and led them away afterward. Schneider, however, said they were being treated as well as possible under the circumstances.
“The mayor of this city granted us his protection and he regarded us as his guests,” Schneider told journalists in Slovyansk, which has become the center of the pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine. “I can tell you that the word of the mayor is a word of honor. We have not been touched.”
But the international observers, whose presence in Slavyansk was part of an OSCE mission spelled out in the Vienna Document, were clearly not guests. They were led into the press conference by armed gunmen, and were being closely observed by the self-appointed mayor, who himself was armed. C.J. Chivers reports:
In Slaviansk, in an afternoon of political theatre self-appointed mayor Vyachislav Ponomaryov had the detainees led into an auditorium by masked gunmen, who placed the observers in seats once used by the city’s administrators. He then yielded the floor to the German officer leading the observers, Colonel Axel Schneider, who held a long question-and-answer session with journalists.
With erect posture, the colonel began by referring to himself and his team as “guests” under Mr Ponomaryov’s “protection,” and said the team had suffered no violence at its captors’ hands since being seized on Friday.
“We are not prisoners of war,” he said.
But the clearly coercive nature of the display here held the truth of the matter, which Colonel Schneider nodded to toward the end of the conference, saying, “I cannot go home on my free decision.”
Meanwhile, the separatist leader also reportedly captured three Ukrainian military officers and were holding them in Slavyansk as well. The separatists released photos of the men who appeared beaten and blindfolded. Al Jazeera reports:
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.
The three captured officers were being kept 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.”