Check point of insurgents in Luhansk Oblast.
When the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent monitors to Ukraine’s southeast in late April, nobody could have predicted how hard and dangerous their mission would be.
Since then dozens of OSCE observers have faced threats and abductions. Eight of them are currently being kept as hostages in Luhansk region after they were captured more than three weeks ago by armed Russian-backed separatists without any promise of when they could be released.
They are being kept in much harsher conditions than a previous group of seven members of an OSCE military observation mission who were captured in Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast on April 25 and released after a week of negotiations.
“In Sloviansk we had daily contact with our people as well as (Vyacheslav) Ponomarev (then local leader of separatists), we saw the hostages and were able to bring some food for them,” said Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE spokesman in Kyiv. “But now it’s different.”
No separatist group has claimed responsibility for abducting and holding the OSCE observers, nor has any publicly declared any demands in return for their release, complicating the efforts to rescue them.
But mounting evidence and sources show they are being kept by Russian-backed paramilitary Cossacks, and most likely being used as human shields to prevent airstrikes by Ukrainian military forces.
The first group of four monitors, including Swiss, Danish, Turkish and Estonian nationals, was detained on May 26 in the mining town of Torez, near the border between Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The group was immediately taken east to Atratsyt and is now believed to be kept in nearby Perevalsk, a suburb of Alchevsk, Luhansk Oblast. The OSCE says it believes this is where they are being held because a white OSCE vehicle driven by insurgents that has been seen on the streets of Perevalsk.
The second group of monitors, including a Spanish, Dutch, Russian and German national (a woman), and one local translator were captured on May 29 at a separatist checkpoint in Sievierodonetsk, where the monitors are still being kept, according to Kyiv Post sources. The translator was later released.
On May 17, the OSCE office managed to establish contact with all the captured monitors, confirming that they are “alive and unharmed,” Botsiurkiv said, adding that many of the monitors used to work in military or law enforcement, or have years of experience in international missions with the UN or OSCE.
Various media and security sources indicate that both groups were abducted and now kept under the orders of Nikolay Kozitsyn, ataman of Army of the Don and a Russian national.
Cossack ataman Nikolay Kozitsyn.
In early June Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) released an intercepted phone conversation of Kozitsyn, in which he orders his subversives to hold captive the OSCE representatives, saying he received commands from above to do so.
“Comrade General! My guys stopped a column of OSCE observers. What should we do with them?” an insurgent asks Kozitsyn in the call.
Kozitsyn reponds: “Lyosha, here’s the command: gather all their documents, find them a room, but without any sharp objects and setup guards. Hide the car in some kind of garage so that no one can see it. Got it?”
“This command came from above. From far-far away,” he adds.
Another conversation indicated that an insurgent leader named Igor (most likely Igor Girkin, commander of insurgents in Sloviansk) was sending a request to Kozitsyn to release the OSCE representatives. Kozitsyn, however, refused to do so.
“Even the ‘top’ knows about it and you do not have to do anything. Tell me that they are aware in Belokamennaya (historical epithet meaning Moscow),” a voice purported to be Kozitsyn can be heard saying, referring to a commander above him.
In a phone conversation with the Kyiv Post on June 18, Kozitsyn confirmed that his people were keeping foreign hostages, but denied they were from the OSCE.
“They are our guests. They are being fed and given water and are allowed to use the bathroom. They will stay with us until we push ‘Ukrops’ (Ukrainian forces) back to Kyiv,” Kozitsyn said.
“We are keeping them here so that they see what it means, the bombing (by Ukrainian forces),” he added.
According to information available on the internet, Kozitsyn participated in military conflicts in Transnistria and negotiations on behalf of Russian Cossacks with Jokhar Dudayev in Chechnya and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. He is reported to have been rewarded by the FSB Russian State Security Service.
Kozitsyn is said to have arrived in eastern Ukraine together with his Cossacks in early May to fight against Ukrainian forces. His group, comprised of several thousand fighters, managed to seize control of a large part of Luhansk Oblast but has butted-heads with the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, according to Oleksiy Svetikov, journalists and activists from Sievierodonetsk.
“There are reasons to consider that the aim of keeping (the OSCE representatives) is to use the international observers as human shields in order to prevent the Ukrainian army from shooting the building,” Svetikov said in an interview with the Ukrinform news agency.
OSCE officials say they appealed to all possible government and security bodies in Ukraine and Russia, and even asked the Orthodox Church, which has close links to the Cossacks, to help with the release of its observers. Despite the efforts, they have been unsuccessful so far.
For now, the OSCE mission continues its work in the east, but is keeping a much lower profile than a month ago. It is also planning to cut its number of monitors in the eastern regions.
“When they (OSCE monitors) are released, it’s a big question if we will go on this way,” Bociurkiw said.