(USA Today) A team of European military observers detained as suspected NATO spies could be released in exchange for jailed pro-Russian activists, a pro-Russian insurgency leader in eastern Ukraine said Saturday.
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, self-proclaimed people's mayor of Slovyansk, a city 90 miles west of Russia, described the detained observers as "captives."
"As we found maps on them containing information about the location of our checkpoints, we get the impression that they are officers carrying out a certain spying mission," Ponomarev said, according to the Associated Press.
Ukraine's state security service issued a statement Saturday, claiming that "the official representatives of the OSCE are being held in inhuman conditions," and that "among those detained is a person who needs immediate medical help," Russia Today reported.
The German-led, eight-member team was traveling under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe when they were detained. Germany's Defense Ministry said it had lost contact with the team, which included five Ukrainians.
Tim Guldimann, OSCE's special envoy for Ukraine, told German public radio WDR on Saturday that "efforts are being made to solve this issue." He declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's acting prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, but escalating Ukrainian-Russian tensions prompted him to return home instead of staying for the canonization ceremony on Sunday.
Francis gave Yatsenyuk a fountain pen, telling him, "I hope that you write 'peace' with this pen."
Yatsenyuk replied: "I hope so, too."
In a joint statement released Friday night by the White House, the United States and other nations in the Group of Seven said they have agreed to "move swiftly" to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine.
The G-7 nations say they will act urgently to intensify "targeted sanctions." The statement says the G-7 will also continue to prepare broader sanctions on key Russian economic sectors if Moscow takes more aggressive action. The White House says U.S. sanctions could be levied as early as Monday.