By Maria Tsvetkova and Alexander Ermochenko
MOSCOW/DONETSK, Ukraine – Russian-backed separatists on Saturday called off a protest outside a hotel in eastern Ukraine housing international conflict monitors, ending a blockade sparked by the capture of a separatist officer by Ukrainian government forces.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had been confined to their hotel in the separatist-held city of Donetsk for more than a week and had to suspend their patrolling mission.
It was one of several instances of the OSCE, Europe’s main security watchdog, being blocked from operating since the capture of the separatist officer on Oct 13. The separatists had demanded help from the OSCE to secure his release.
The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has been deployed in eastern Ukraine since the outbreak of a war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.
Late on Saturday, a Reuters witness saw the protesters dismantling tents pitched outside the Park Inn hotel in the city centre and saw OSCE monitors walking out of the building.
One of the protesters at the scene, who did not provide her name, cited the worsening COVID-19 situation as a reason the protest had ended.
The foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Natalya Nikonorova, said the protesters had ended the blockade ahead of ban public events that comes into force on Monday due to the pandemic.
“Starting from Monday, the protest will be illegal,” Nikonorova told Reuters by phone.
The OSCE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Wednesday the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, had expressed deep concern about the situation at the hotel.
“There can be no justification for any form of interference in the mission’s work,” she said in a statement.
The separatists had also blockaded a hotel containing OSCE monitors in nearby Horlivka but quickly called off that protest.
A Western diplomatic source said the separatists might have used coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to end the blockade.
“I think that is the cover to call it off … a fig leaf to make it look like it is not a climb-down,” he said.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Christina Fincher)