Didier Burkhalter, Swiss president and chairman of the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says his organization was working 'at all levels' to secure release of the kidnapped observers in Ukraine. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP)
BONN — Negotiators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have arrived in Ukraine to try and win the release of an international observer team that has been held hostage by separatist forces in the town of Slavyansk in the eastern Ukraine since April 25.
The local militia leader, Wjatscheslaw Ponomarjow, called the observer team, which is under German leadership, NATO spies and prisoners of war. Among those held hostage are four Germans, three soldiers and one civil translator.
According to the German government, the team is in the country on the invitation of Ukraine under the Vienna Document, a politically binding agreement among all 57 member states of the OSCE. A central component are measures for increased transparency and confidence-building as well as for peaceful conflict management. According to German online-news-channel tagesschau.de, they are not official OSCE observers but a so-called Military Verification Team.
“The observers and thereby also our soldiers of the Bundeswehr are not in the Ukraine to intervene in any form, but they are there on the basis of the so called Vienna Document within the OSCE,” said German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
“The activities of the observers are an important contribution to the de-escalation in this difficult situation in the east of the Ukraine,” she said.
On April 27, the separatists paraded some of the inspectors in a TV press conference. The militia demanded a “prisoner exchange” for comrades imprisoned by the Ukrainian government. However, on the same day, tagesschau.de reported that a Swedish member of the team has been released apparently because he suffers from diabetes.
In Germany, a crisis unit has been set up in the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier issued a statement after the hostages were paraded on TV, condemning the action as a flagrant violation of their human dignity and demanding help by Russia to resolve this situation.
“Russia has an obligation to use its influence with the separatists in order to convince them to release the members of the OSCE mission being held as quickly as possible.”
Von der Leyen visited the Verification Center of the Bundeswehr today, where the German observers are stationed. There she met with relatives of those who are detained in Slavyansk. For 22 years the verification center has been responsible for implementing international law and politically binding arms control treaties and agreements for Germany. The specifications for the missions are coming from the Foreign Ministry while the Defense Ministry has the technical supervision.
Located in the western German town of Geilenkirchen, experts at the center have conducted more than 3,000 missions and worked on more than 20 treaties and agreements. These include confidence-building measures of the Vienna Document, various reporting obligations to the United Nations, verification measures of the CFE Treaty regarding global efforts to destroy ammunition, and activities in the field of biology and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The center also trains experts from other countries.