OSCE members being held in eastern Ukraine have been brought before a group of journalists in Slovyansk. Their captors, pro-Russian separatists, are scheduled to meet with an OSCE delegation to discuss their release.
Military observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were led into a room filled with members of the media on Sunday in the town hall of Slovyansk. Pro-Russian separatists currently controlling the city and responsible for the observers' detention called the press conference.
Among the captives was German Colonel Axel Schneider, who spoke to reporters on behalf of the group.
"All the European officers are in good health and no one is sick," Colonel Schneider said.
He told reporters that no one in the group "had been touched," but that they could not leave of their own "free will."
Schneider also denied allegations of spying for NATO: "We are OSCE officers with diplomatic status."
Eight OSCE members and five Ukrainians accompanying them were held on Friday by the rebel group on the suspicion of spying for NATO. In an effort to secure their release, the OSCE sent a delegation to the restive eastern city to meet with the group's leaders at noon local time. However, at the time of the press conference, it was not immediately clear whether the two sides had begun talks.
Colonel Schneider told reporters: "We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries."
Ahead of the press conference on Sunday, the self-declared mayor of Slovyansk , Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, expressed optimism at negotiating a release.
"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 Crimea peninsula was annexed by Russia in March.
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)