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European Observers Held By Pro-Russian Force Are Freed In Ukraine

Military observers including German Col. Axel Schneider, second left, hug each other after being released in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday. They were released to Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin, left.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
Military observers including German Col. Axel Schneider, second left, hug each other after being released in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Saturday. They were released to Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin, left.

Seven European military observers are free Saturday, more than a week after they were seized by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The move comes as Kiev applies military pressure to separatists who have claimed territory and buildings in the region.

Tensions hit a new high in parts of Ukraine Friday, when a clash between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine groups in Odessa culminated in dozens of deaths in Odessa after a building was set on fire with pro-Russian forces inside.

The death toll, reported by Reuters as at least 42, made Friday the deadliest day in Ukraine since attacks killed 70 people in Kiev's Independence Square on Feb. 20. In the wake of Friday's violence, the government says the chief of police has been fired, and that an investigation is under way.

The European captives' release was first announced by Russia's envoy Vladimir Lukin. Despite the development, Russia is reiterating that it has no control over the separatists — particularly after the violence that broke out in Odessa. As President Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov tells state-run news agency Tass:

"From now on, Russia has factually lost its influence on these people, because it will be impossible to persuade them to lay down arms against the background of a direct threat to their life."

While the conflict is being played out in cities and at checkpoints, it has also brought attempts to control the narrative of what's happening in Ukraine, with both sides alleging the other of using propaganda.

From Donetsk, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson tells NPR's Scott Simon that Ukraine has taken control of TV transmitters. It's an attempt to keep Russian-language programming off the air in the country; Kiev's government views the broadcasts as a source of agitation.

On Weekend Edition Saturday, Soraya adds that the clashes are more than a matter of locals resorting to violence.

"I certainly saw some very professional-looking people in Kramatorsk yesterday, in camouflage, carrying modern-looking weaponry," she says, "who were setting up a blockade and who had reportedly blown up a bridge in the area to keep troops from coming into Kramatorsk."

The Europeans who were taken last Friday had been accused of being spies for NATO. NPR's Teri Schultz filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"The seven observers and their five Ukrainian assistants were set free as pro-Russian separatists dropped their demands the group be exchanged for militants held by Ukraine. They had been in Slovyansk on a monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation, the OSCE, when they were seized by armed men April 25th.

"OSCE Chairman, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, thanked those who had helped secure the team's release under what he called difficult circumstances.

"Burkhalter says the situation in eastern and southern Ukraine is very tense and at risk of deteriorating rapidly. He says the OSCE will continue its work to bring security and stability to Ukraine through dialogue."

The leader of the pro-Russian group, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, had this to say about the Europeans' release, via the BBC: "As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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