Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine offered on Saturday to release eight captive international observers in a prisoner exchange, as Western governments prepared new sanctions against Moscow.
The pro-Western government in Kiev blamed Russia for what it called the kidnapping on Friday of the monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The separatists said they suspected the observers of spying; Ukraine said they were being used as human shields.
Earlier on Saturday, the Group of Seven major economies announced they had agreed to impose more sanctions on Russia, which they believe is bent on destabilising its former Soviet neighbour and possibly grabbing more territory. Diplomats said the United States and the European Union were expected to unveil new punitive action against Russian individuals from Monday.
The OSCE sent more monitors on Saturday to seek the release of those detained in Slavyansk, a city under the separatists’ control. Those being held are from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, de facto mayor of Slavyansk, told reporters: “They were soldiers on our territory without our permission, of course they are prisoners.”
He said the separatists were ready to exchange the captured monitors for fellow rebels now in the custody of the Ukrainian authorities. “Prisoners have always been coins to exchange during times of war. It’s an international practice,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Vienna-based organisation, of which Russia is a member, said the OSCE had been in contact with “all sides” since late on Friday but had had no direct contact with the observers.
The Russian foreign ministry said it was working to resolve the crisis, but blamed Kiev for failing to ensure the OSCE mission’s safety in “areas where the authorities do not control the situation and where a military operation against residents of their own country has been unleashed”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier discussed the Ukraine situation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov by telephone Saturday.
In a separate call with US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Russian minister said Ukraine must halt military operations in the southeast of the country in order to defuse the crisis.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said Russian military aircraft entered Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight. “The only reason is to provoke Ukraine … and to accuse Ukraine of waging war against Russia,” the prime minister told reporters before cutting short a visit to Rome.
Tymoshenko calls for NATO membership
Kiev: Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Ukraine “must be a member of NATO” to protect itself from Russian aggression. Tymoshenko, running in the May 25 presidential election, told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday, “With his war against us, Putin has been able to change the mentality of Ukrainians about NATO and turn us in a different strategic direction. In this case, NATO is the best choice for Ukraine,” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP