Pro-Russian insurgents freed on Sunday one of eight military observers being held in eastern Ukraine.
The observers, from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have been detained by pro-Russian militants since Friday. The militants accuse them of being Western spies working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Major Thomas Johansson of Sweden was the single observer freed. Sweden is not a member of NATO.
Johansson’s release came after masked gunmen led the captive observers into an auditorium Sunday, where the observers’ leader, Colonel Axel Schneider of Germany, held a long question-and-answer session with journalists. Schneider maintained that the observers, visibly nervous during the conference, were being held as “guests” of the mayor and were not being mistreated, the Financial Times reports.
But while Schneider claimed he and his observers were “not prisoners of war,” the German officer did at the end say, “I cannot go home on my free decision,” the New York Times reports.
The group was performing a diplomatically accredited inspection of internal-security conditions, Schneider said, when they were stopped at a checkpoint south of Slavyansk and taken captive.
The insurgents in eastern Ukraine have taken several journalists and pro-Ukrainian activists prisoner. The mayor of Slavyansk suggested that several dozen had been detained, the Associated Press reports. Three Ukrainian security officers were captured Sunday and shown to Russian journalists bloodied and blindfolded, the AP reports.
The U.S. and other nations in the G-7, which accuse Russia of stirring up civil unrest in Ukraine, have announced plans to impose additional economic sanctions on the Kremlin. Russia’s economy has already suffered under the sanctions as Standard & Poor’s on Friday lowered Russia’s credit rating to a notch above “junk status.”