KIEV, Ukraine -- Captured European arms inspectors were released Saturday by gunmen in Ukraine's eastern town of Slovyansk, a Kremlin envoy said.
Six arms control inspectors from Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Poland and their German translator were released without preconditions as a “goodwill move,” said Vladimir Lukin, head of the Moscow delegation, in Slovyansk. Lukin was quoted in Ukrainskaya Pravda, a liberal online journal.
The hostages were taken by gunmen reportedly led by a group of Russian nationals on April 25 in the course of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe inspection trip near Slovyansk.
The self-proclaimed pro-Russia mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, initially accused them of being NATO spies “on our territory uncontrolled by Kiev junta” and told The Times last week that he intended to exchange them for separatists arrested earlier and still held by Ukraine law enforcement.
However on Saturday he changed his tone and said they had never been his hostages but “dear guests.”
“We had a nice little party with them yesterday [Friday] with champagne and all,” Ponomaryov said in a telephone interview to The Times. “This morning our friend Vladimir Lukin came and we entrusted them in his care. They should be on their way to Donetsk now. They must have enjoyed their visit and our hospitality.”
The pro-Russia gunmen in Slovyansk also released four Ukraine army officers who had accompanied the inspectors on their trip and had been abducted with them, Ponomaryov confirmed.
Ukraine authorities accused Russia of setting up the capture and subsequent release, the Ukraine Security Service said.
“Despite Russian claims that Ukraine was responsible for the taking of hostages, the recording of the [intercepted] telephone conversation between Russian Federation special envoy Vladimr Lukin and leader of the armed terrorists, Igor Girkin, shows that the official Russian side coordinates the actions of the militants and has direct influence over their decisions,” said a statement posted on the Security Service's official website Saturday.
The service also posted the recording in which Lukin asked Girkin if he “had objections” to handing over the hostages to him. “I have no objections for one simple reason,” Girkin in the recording replied. “All this has already been discussed with me.”
In the recorded conversation which took place on Friday, Lukin asked Girkin if he could come to pick up hostages “right now,” on Friday, or the next morning. Girkin replied that Saturday was better because he had to deal with organizing separatist defenses to repel the government attack.
Slovyansk was tightly surrounded Friday and nine separatist checkpoints were destroyed in the battle, acting Interior Minster Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook account.
Ponomaryov confirmed to The Times that a serious battle had taken place Friday on the outskirts of Slovyansk and four separatists were killed and two wounded.
“Now it has been a quiet day, but as our European guests are gone we are preparing for a new attack,” Ponomaryov said.
Avakov wrote on his Facebook account that Friday the security forces regained control of the television tower in the nearby town of Kramatorsk and of the airstrip halfway between the two towns. Avakov reported heavy fighting near Kramatorsk.
"Together with the National Guard units, [Ukraine army] paratroops won back the television tower from the terrorists in Kramatorsk," read a statement posted on the Defense Ministry's official website. "After mopping up and examining the territory it was established that there were about 200 militants there -- everywhere fire positions had been prepared."
Two paratroopers died and seven were injured in the overnight battle, the statement read.