- POSTED: 28 Jun 2014 20:49
- UPDATED: 29 Jun 2014 04:32
Pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine on Saturday released a second group of European monitors after being pressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet the terms of a tenuous truce with Kiev.
DONETSK: Pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine on Saturday released a second group of European monitors after being pressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet the terms of a tenuous truce with Kiev.
Both Ukraine and its Western allies have been seeking concrete steps from Russia to back up the ceasefire Kiev extended with the militias on Friday in the hope of calming a deadly insurgency sparked by the country's new westward course.
The four monitors from Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- one woman and three men -- looked tired but relieved as they were handed over by heavily-armed rebels to one of the group's representative at a hotel in the eastern hub city of Donetsk at around 1800 GMT.
"We are releasing the last four observers who were being held on the territory of the Lugansk People's Republic," the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic told reporters.
"We consider that we have fulfilled all our obligations," Oleksandr Borodai said.
The first group detained on May 26 in the Donetsk province was handed over to the OSCE on Thursday. Borodai said one the second team's members was from Russia but gave no other details.
The Vienna-based organisation's representative at the handover also hailed their colleagues' freedom.
"We welcome the return of the last four of the missing OSCE special monitoring teammates after a month away," deputy mission head Mark Etherington said in a statement.
"The detention of OSCE monitors has substantially constrained the operations of the mission in eastern Ukraine at a time when a flow of objective information has never been more important."
The OSCE -- a 57-nation body created in the 1970s to oversee European security during the Cold War -- has played a central role in trying to mediate an end to a 12-week insurgency convulsing the ex-Soviet state.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko returned triumphant from Brussels on Friday having opened the way to his splintered state's eventual membership in the European Union by signing the final chapters of a landmark free trade and political association accord.
The 1,200-page tome spells out the minute details of the terms under which Kiev will slip from the Kremlin's embrace and tie its future to European economic standards and values on human rights.
But Poroshenko had ordered his top security chiefs to meet him at the airport on landing in order to make a fateful decision about prolonging an expiring truce with rebels who have seized effective control of Ukraine's industrial east.
The rebel uprising has killed nearly 450 people and is viewed by both Kiev and its Western allies as Putin's revenge for the February toppling of a leader who had ditched the very EU accord Poroshenko had signed in Brussels.
Poroshenko ultimately decided to extend the shaky ceasefire until Monday evening under the condition that Russia requires the insurgents to return border crossings to Ukrainian forces and set up a monitoring mechanism for a long-term truce.
A spokesman for Ukraine's eastern campaign told AFP that the past day of fighting saw three soldiers killed and six others wounded outside the rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk.
"Everyone knows that a bad peace is better than a good war," Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval told Ukraine's UNIAN news agency.
Poroshenko is expected to enlist the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande when he places a scheduled call to Putin on the eve of the ceasefire's expiry.
Sunday's teleconference -- the second in four days -- is primarily meant to check on any visible shift in Moscow before the European Union and Washington consider unleashing biting sanctions against Russia's financial and defence sectors the following day.
Putin has publicly backed the ceasefire's extensions and promoted direct talks between Poroshenko and top rebel commanders.
But the West wants the Kremlin chief to call on the fighters to lay down their weapons and relinquish control of state buildings they had seized across a dozen eastern cities and towns.
EU leaders agreed at their Brussels summit "to reconvene at any time to adopt further significant restrictive measures if a detailed list of concrete steps are not taken by Russia and the separatists by Monday".
The United States stressed that it was also ready to act at any point.
But public statements in Russia have thus far suggested that it was busy preparing an economic counter-offensive against Ukraine that would put up prohibitive barriers to its trade.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Moscow would treat Ukraine and the ex-Soviet states of Georgia of Moldova that signed their own EU deals on Friday "based on one criterium -- how (the agreements) might hurt Russian trade".
Russian and EU ministers have tentatively agreed to meet on July 11 to discuss how Moscow's concerns might be best addressed.