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Unrest in Eastern Ukraine Escalates as Separatists Collect ‘Bargaining Chips’

As pro-Russia separatists terrorize eastern Ukraine, the situation in the region continues to worsen amid armed attacks and kidnappings.

by Alice Speri
Apr 25 2014, 8:10pm

Photo by Frederick Paxton

On Monday evening, after covering a press conference held by the pro-Russian separatists that had gained control of Sloviansk, VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky was detained at a checkpoint in the center of the city while driving back to his hotel with four other journalists.

Ostrovsky was released on Thursday after being beaten and held captive for three nights. He described his experience in an account of his detention published Friday morning.

‘I had it pretty easy, because I was let go’: Simon Ostrovsky on his detention in Sloviansk.

The unidentified men who captured him targeted him specifically because of his coverage of events in the city.

In one of the several press conferences that followed Ostrovsky’s abduction, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, Sloviansk’s self-appointed “people’s mayor,” said that the group was holding him “so he wouldn’t put out a lot of provocative commentary, so he wouldn’t conduct hostile activity on our territory.”

“In the final analysis, he is an undesirable element in our area,” Ponomaryov said. “We know all the journalists, we are familiar with you all, we talk to you all, we reached a certain agreement about what and how you are to clearly and accurately broadcast information received, not to exaggerate the facts.”

The following video shows Ponomaryov speaking at another press conference, which was held on Thursday ahead of Ostrovsky’s release. Ponomaryov told reporters that Ostrovsky would be freed after his nationality and identity were “verified,” and asked that they refrain from asking further questions about him.

The self-declared "people's mayor" of Sloviansk spoke at a press conference on Thursday.

Escalation

Ostrovsky and Paxton had traveled to Sloviansk to investigate a deadly shootout that took place there last Sunday, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least three people. The circumstances of the incident are still unclear.

Watch the dispatch Simon Ostrovsky was working on when he was detained.

Meanwhile, the situation in eastern Ukraine continues to worsen.

On Friday, Kiev officials reported that a Ukrainian military helicopter caught fire and exploded after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while on the ground at a base near Kramatorsk, not far from Sloviansk. Armed clashes followed the explosion, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The following video, shared by a local resident, shows smoke rising over the airfield.

A Ukrainian military helicopter was attacked and exploded in Kramatorsk on Friday.

Also on Friday, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry reported that a bus carrying mediators with the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) was seized by armed separatists in Sloviansk. Thirteen people were reportedly abducted, including seven OSCE members, five Ukrainian security officers, and one bus driver.

Ponomaryov confirmed that the bus and its passengers were detained, claiming that the vehicle was carrying banned ammunition.

The OSCE also confirmed through its Twitter account that it “lost” communication with military observers in the Donetsk region. It said that the missing individuals were not OSCE monitors, however, but a military verification team led by Germans that was sent to the region following an invitation by Ukraine.

The OSCE did not immediately respond to requests for clarification.

Ponomaryov held yet another press conference a short while ago where he displayed the ID cards of some of the military observers that had been detained.

“Bargaining Chips”

Kidnappings have been on the rise as the situation in eastern Ukraine has deteriorated. Before Ostrovsky's release, Ponomaryov told reporters that Ostrovsky and those detained with him were being held as “bargaining chips” in negotiations with authorities in Kiev.

Besides the 13 passengers aboard the bus that was detained today, at least 16 people have recently been abducted in Sloviansk and Horlivka.

The bodies of two of them, including local politician Vladimir Rybak, were found on Tuesday. They were tortured to death. Rybak, a Ukrainain nationalist, had reportedly attempted to raise the Ukrainian flag atop a local legislature building.

“The terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far, by starting to torture and murder Ukrainian patriots,” Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, said on Tuesday as he announced a new round of military operations in the country’s east. “These crimes are being committed with the full support and connivance of the Russian Federation.”

Ukrainian authorities and Western leaders have repeatedly blamed Moscow for encouraging unrest in eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday, the Security Service of Ukraine released audio recordings that allege the involvement of Russian military intelligence in Rybak’s abduction, torture, and murder. The following video features a conversation between two men that local reports suggest have ties to Russian intelligence.

VICE News could not independently verify the recording, in which a Russian lieutenant colonel is allegedly heard ordering a subordinate to abduct Rybak, tie his hands, and blindfold him. Later in the recording, a different Russian intelligence colonel allegedly calls Ponomaryov, telling him to “come and pick up (Rybak’s) body because it is starting to stink.” Ponomaryov allegedly replies that he will “bury the punk.”

Ostrovsky said that a dozen other detainees were being held in the cellar of the Ukraine state security building where he was detained, which the pro-Russia militants had taken over.

“No one should be allowed to take hostages no matter what their political demands are,” Ostrovsky wrote after his release. “Everyone being illegally held in that damp cellar, or any of the other buildings controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ should be released or handed over to the police immediately.”

Last Sunday, separatist militias also detained another Ukrainian activist and journalist, Irma Krat, whom they twice paraded before reporters while she was wearing a blindfold.

Press conferences in eastern Ukraine have been getting weirder and weirder. Read more here.

The abductions and detentions have drawn international condemnation.

“The ongoing detention of journalists, municipal officials and residents by an armed group in Sloviansk speaks volumes about the lawlessness that has crept into parts of eastern Ukraine and raises fears the detainees could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” Heather McGill of Amnesty International said in a statement on Thursday. “Anyone unlawfully detaining journalists or others in eastern Ukraine must guarantee their safety and release them immediately and unconditionally.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi