'Deep relief': OSCE team's joy at being freed in Ukraine
The head of an OSCE team released by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine on Saturday expressed his "deep relief" after an ordeal that lasted more than a week.
"It is happiness, a deep relief," German Colonel Axel Schneider told a small group of journalists on the road outside of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
He spoke as he and the rest of the freed members of the OSCE team were on their way to Donetsk, from where they flew to Kiev and then onwards to Berlin in a German jet.
The group, all men, consisted of seven Europeans -- four Germans including Schneider, one Pole, one Dane and one Czech -- as well as five Ukrainian military officers who had been accompanying them.
They were seized by pro-Russian rebels on April 25 and kept in Slavyansk, where the insurgents at one point made them give a news conference under armed guard. One inspector, a Swede, was released April 27 because he suffered from diabetes.
The rebels insisted that the prisoners -- whom they called "guests" -- would only be exchanged for militants taken prisoner by Ukrainian authorities.
The captivity of the remaining inspectors became tenser on Friday, when the Ukrainian military launched an offensive on Slavyansk, with one of the aims to force the rebels to free the OSCE team.
"It was really tough the last two nights as we saw the situation developing then. Every minute gets longer," Schneider said.
In the end, after days of outrage from Western capitals over their captivity, direct intervention from a Kremlin envoy, Vladimir Lukin, resulted in their liberation.
"Finally, with the cooperation of all the key players, it went perfectly," Schneider said.
No details of the terms of their release were given.
- 'Humanitarian' release -
But Lukin later told a news conference in Donetsk that the pro-Russian rebels' decision "was motivated by humanitarian concerns".
He sought to distance himself from accusations that Russia had control over the rebels, saying: "I am a Russian citizen and am far from interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine."
The Ukrainian officers, who were kept separate from the Europeans during their ordeal, in Slavyansk, arrived in Kiev late Saturday.
One of them, Colonel Igor Turovsky, told reporters "we weren't mistreated... they gave us food and drink and let us sleep".
He said they were seized "because we didn't get authorisation for out trip from representatives of the local population" -- the same line used by their rebel captors, who are believed to hold up to 40 other people in Slavyansk, many of them Ukrainian servicemen.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who met the officers at the airport, reminded journalists that the rebels were holding three Ukrainian commandos, who were shown on Russian television savagely beaten and stripped to their underwear.
Germany's defence and foreign ministers meanwhile late Saturday told a news conference they were "happy and relieved" at the OSCE team's release.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has deployed scores of monitors across Ukraine to observer the effects of an April 17 Geneva peace deal that the rebels ended up ignoring.
The captured military inspectors were not part of that main mission, but of a smaller annex mission to verify the military situation on the ground. All OSCE members -- including Russia -- approved of their deployment.
© 2014 AFP