Ukraine’s newly-elected president Petro Poroshenko (Reuters)
Separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine say they are holding four unarmed European monitors who went missing three days earlier but promised to release them soon.
The latest abduction in a vital rust belt region overrun by pro-Russian militants since early April underscores the trouble newly-elected president Petro Poroshenko will have in keeping his ex-Soviet republic whole.
Fresh fighting was reported on Thursday (local time) across parts of eastern Ukraine as the violence continued unabated after having already claimed some 200 lives.
But the Western-backed leader – winner of 54.7 percent of Sunday’s presidential vote – must first avert another showdown with Russia that could see Ukraine cut off from gas supplies by the start of next week.
The 48-year-old confectionary tycoon reached out to Vladimir Putin on Wednesday by announcing that he intended to speak to the Russian leader when they both attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
The talks would be the first between the two neighbour’s presidents since a popular uprising chased a Kremlin-backed regime from power in February and installed a new administration intent on breaking Russia’s historic hold on Ukraine.
The self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk said the four civilian monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were “all fine”.
“No one arrested them. We detained them. Now we will work out who they are, where they were going and why, and we will let them go,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
He further suggested that the team could have been involved in espionage.
A source at the organisation told AFP that the team – a Dane, an Estonian, a Turk and a Swiss national – included one woman and that negotiations for their release had been ongoing for some time.
A second group of 11 observers was detained in the neighbouring Donetsk province on Wednesday. The OSCE said it had managed to re-establish contact with them by the end of the night.
Cash-strapped Ukraine has until midnight Thursday (local time) to pay Russia US$2 billion under an EU-brokered agreement or face a halt in gas supplies next week that would also impact parts of Europe.
Russia’s state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom said a failure to pay will scuttle negotiations on a lower gas price and prompt it to proceed with a cutoff that would impact parts of Europe next Tuesday unless a larger payment of more than US$5 billion is made by Monday night.
Putin pointed out on Wednesday that Russia had not received any money for gas since November but was still willing to negotiate a lower price – if it was paid on time.
“This cannot continue forever,” Putin told a government meeting. “Everyone understands that perfectly well.”
Poroshenko said on Thursday he no longer trusted Russia – accused by both Kiev and Western leaders of orchestrating the insurgency.
“We need a new defence alliance with the United States and Europe to protect Ukraine militarily.”
The comments are likely to irritate Putin because he has insisted that Ukraine draft a new constitution that specifies Kiev’s neutrality in international affairs.