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Updated: Sat, 03 May 2014 14:23:54 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine crisis: OSCE observers held by pro-Russian separatists released

OSCE observer Axel Schneider (© R)

OSCE observer Axel Schneider (R) hugs a colleague on a road 30 km (19 miles) from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine May 3, 2014, after being freed by pro-Russian separatists. A group of military observers who were seized last week by pro-Russian separatists in Slaviansk has been released, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed on Saturday. REUTERS/Marko Djurica (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3NMSI REUTERS

Pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine on Saturday released the seven OSCE military observers and five Ukrainian assistants who had been held for more than a week.

A total of eight observers were seized April 25 in the city of Slovyansk, the epicentre of eastern Ukraine's unrest, as they travelled with an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer team. The insurgents said they possessed unspecified suspicious material and alleged they were spying for NATO.

An observer from Sweden who was part of the team was released last weekend. Unlike the other observers' countries, Sweden is not a member of NATO and the Swede reportedly suffers from a mild form of diabetes.

Shortly before the release of the others, the insurgents' leader in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying he ordered them freed because of increasing insecurity in the city.

As the observers were released, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday pressed Russia to stop backing separatists in eastern Ukraine and help oust them from government buildings seized in about a dozen cities and towns.

Kerry spoke with Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov while flying from Ethiopia to Congo.

"It's a step. But there are many other steps that have to be taken in order to be able to de-escalate the situation," Kerry told reporters after landing in Kinshasa.

Kerry said he and Lavrov discussed additional steps that need to be taken, and made clear that it was critical for Russia "to withdraw support from separatists and to assist in removing people from the buildings."

Even as the military observers gained their freedom, Kerry and Lavrov talked about the ability of the OSCE to perhaps play a larger role in working to de-escalate the crisis.

Helicopters shot down

Two Ukrainian helicopters were reported shot down outside the city on Friday, killing two crew members and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said two other soldiers were killed in a clash on the oustkirts. Ponomarev said 10 local people were killed in a confrontation with soldiers on Slovyansk's outskirts, but there was no independent confirmation.

Despite the release, tensions in Ukraine heightened sharply after at least 42 people died in clashes between government supporters and opponents in the Black Sea port of Odessa on Friday. The clash began with street fighting between the two sides in which as least three people were reported killed by gunfire, then turned into a grisly conflagration when government opponents took refuge in a building that caught fire after protesters threw firebombs inside.

At least 36 people were killed in the fire, according to the emergencies ministry. An Interior Ministry statement gave the overall death toll for the day at 42, but did not give a breakdown.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Ukraine welcomed the release of the monitors but said he was "deeply saddened" by the loss of life from the violent clashes in Odessa.

He reiterated that a "political and diplomatic solution is the only way out of the crisis."

The city's police chief, Petr Lutsyuk, on Saturday issued a statement calling for calm in the city of about 1 million, but hours later he was fired by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman on Saturday decried the Odessa deaths as evidence that the interim government in Kyiv, which came to power following the toppling of the pro-Russia president after months of protests, encourages nationalist extremists.

"Their arms are up to their elbows in blood," Russian news agencies quoted Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Although Russia denies allegations that it is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities and towns, it sent human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin to negotiate for the release of the observers.

Lukin was quoted by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti as saying the release was "a voluntary humanitarian act."

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