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Vacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, right, speaks to a pro-Russian gunman, as two of foreign military observer, one of them Axel Schneider of Germany, center, look to each other during a press conference in city hall, of Slovyansk. AP/Press Association Images

Pro-Russian rebels present peace-keeping 'prisoners of war' to international media

The captured men are in Ukraine as part of an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe verification team.

PRO-RUSSIAN UKRAINIAN rebels holding captive an international team of military observers from the OSCE said they are “prisoners of war” and brought them before the media in a news conference.

The group of eight men, all Europeans, were part of a 12-member OSCE military verification team deployed in east Ukraine. The other four members are Ukrainian military officers who were not brought before the press.

Speaking through one of their number, a German officer, the Europeans asserted their diplomatic status to the scores of local and foreign journalists assembled in the town of Slavyansk.

With armed rebels watching over them as they spoke, the group said they were in good health.

They said they had been “captured” by the insurgents on Friday, around four kilometres (two miles) outside Slavyansk as they had been about to return to the regional hub city of Donetsk.

“We are OSCE officers with diplomatic status,” their German spokesman said.

“I cannot go home of my free will.”

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it had sent a negotiating team to Slavyansk to try to arrange the entire team’s release.

Not hostages but ‘guests’

Ponomaryov, who was wearing a pistol in a holster and was escorted by two armed bodyguards, claimed in the interview that the OSCE observers “are not our hostages — they are our guests”.

The rebel leader said all the detainees “are doing well”.

Asked about Russia’s promise to do everything it could to convince the pro-Kremlin rebels in Slavyansk to release the OSCE military observers, Ponomaryov said: “I have no direct contact with Moscow.”

Ponomaryov also said that rebels had separately “arrested” three Ukrainian officers — a colonel, a major and a captain — he said had been sent towards Slavyansk on a spying mission.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: The Pope, Russia and America are all calling for efforts to de-escalate Ukraine crisis

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