The OSCE has sent a delegation to the restive eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk where pro-Russian separatists have detained several of its observers. The separatists have accused the observers of spying for NATO.
On Sunday, a team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was sent to eastern Ukraine with the mission of securing the release of eight of its observers and five Ukrainians accompanying them, who have been held since Friday. A meeting between the delegation and the pro-Russian separatists who ordered the detention was scheduled for noon local time (0900 UTC).
"We hope to be able to provide more information once they arrive and when they start talking – if they start talking," OSCE spokesperson Tatyana Baeva told news agency AFP on Sunday.
The self-declared mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, confirmed the meeting in an interview with Reuters news agency.
"The soldiers are hostages of the situation, but I think everything will be okay. We'll reach some agreement," Ponomaryov added.
The leader of the rebels' self-declared Donetsk Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Saturday that the "NATO spies" would only be released on the condition that a prisoner exchange took place.
"I don't see any other way they will be freed," Pushilin said in a statement.
The detention of the OSCE observers in Slovyansk has worried international leaders who have been watching pro-Russian activists seize several towns across eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. The incident coincides with an increase of clashes between armed separatists and Ukrainian authorities. On Thursday, Ukrainian security forces shot dead five militants in Slovyansk, following just days after a deadly shoot out at a check point over the Easter holiday.
Russia 'has not lifted a finger'
While speaking to reporters on Sunday, US President Barack Obama hit back at Russia's calls for a de-escalation of tensions in Ukraine, accusing it of aggravating the situation.
Moscow has "not lifted a finger" to deter rebels from their actions in Ukraine, Obama said a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, where he had been meeting with the Malaysian prime minister on the third-leg of his Asia tour.
"In fact, there's strong evidence that [Russia has been] encouraging the activities in eastern and southern Ukraine," Obama added.
This week, Russia deployed thousands of troops to its southwestern border with Ukraine to conduct military exercises. The move has been viewed by the international community as a potential precursor to staging a military intervention which would see the annexation of more Ukrainian territory.
The US and EU plan to unveil further sanctions against Russian allies of President Vladimir Putin as early as Monday unless Moscow changes course. The decision follows a stronger set of restrictions levied against Russia by the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major economies on Saturday.
kms/se (AFP, Reuters)