Monitors Released In Ukraine As Fire Kills Dozens In Odessa

International observers have been freed by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaks to NPR's Scott Simon about their release and new military action.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We begin with news from Ukraine where seven European military monitors and their Ukrainian companions have been freed by their pro-Russian captors. They were held hostage by pro-Russia insurgents for more than a week, and their release comes in the middle of a major Ukrainian operation to try to arrest the city of Slovyansk from separatist hands.

Western leaders had said that freeing the captives was an important step to trying to ease tensions in the region. But clashes seem to just be escalating in eastern Ukraine. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in Donetsk, Ukraine. Soraya, thanks for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: What do we know about the release of these hostages?

NELSON: Well, it came as a real surprise because the Russian envoy, who was negotiating the release on behalf of the Kremlin, said that Ukrainian military operation had killed any chance of a negotiated release.

But then today, the insurgent leader said he couldn't guarantee the safety of this team because of the fighting that's going on in the city of Slovyansk, and so he released them. And I should say - or I should mention that another Western observer of this team, a Swede, had already been released last weekend for health reasons.

SIMON: Do we know where they are now?

NELSON: They've returned to Donetsk here and basically south of Slovyansk where they were being kept for a number of days. And they had some trouble getting here because of the fighting that's going on between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists along the way. The German leader of the team says he and the other former captives' spirits are high.

SIMON: What is the latest on the fighting? What do we know? It seems to be going on in several locations throughout Ukraine.

NELSON: It's still continuing to some extent in Slovyansk, but it seems the focus today is on a city south of there about 10 miles called Kramatorsk. I was there yesterday, and I could see the separatists preparing their defenses. They set up tractor-trailers to close off the main road to Ukrainian armored vehicles. And it was also evident that some of these separatists were very professional-looking masked-soldier types with automatic weapons. And I hadn't seen these people before in the area.

And Ukrainian officials say they've retaken the state security building and TV repeater tower in Kramatorsk. They've taken that from the separatists. So Russian-language TV is no longer being broadcast there. And that's important to the Ukrainians because they believe Russia is stirring up separatist sentiment through the media. It's just as much of a propaganda war here as it is a ground operation with Ukrainians calling these separatists terrorists and the separatist side declaring themselves a grassroots uprising.

SIMON: There were also deaths reported in the city of Odessa last night - famous port city. And I understand that followed clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev protesters. Can you tell us what happened?

NELSON: Yeah. These were street fights that got very intense at some stage. And what happened is a large group of pro-Russian protesters fled into a building. I guess they were seeking shelter or looking for a place to perhaps launch their own attacks.

And what video footage shows is that protesters - other protesters began throwing Molotov cocktails at the building, which went up in flame. And many of these victims died of smoke inhalation or jumping from windows or - you know, when they were jumping from windows.

SIMON: And let's try and follow up on a couple of things, too. What happens now that the European military - we can no longer refer to them as hostages. European military monitors have been released. What happens to their mission?

NELSON: Well, we have to remember that these particular people who were taken captive were not part of the OSCE or - that's the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - they were not part of this official mission that's supposed to be monitoring what's going on here. And so they will - obviously, they're not going to be back here to do what it was they were doing. They were just monitoring separately. But the OSCE mission is continuing to look at what's happening here.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking with us from Donetsk, Ukraine. Thanks very much for being with us.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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