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Pro-Russia Forces Free One Western Military Observer

Image: Vacheslav Ponomarev, Axel Schneider, John Christensen
Vacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, center, is flanked by a group of foreign military observers including Axel Schneider, fourth from the left, and John Christensen, third left, a senior Sgt. in the Danish army, being held by Ponomarev's group during a press conference in city hall, Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, April 27, 2014.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russia insurgents on Sunday freed one of the eight European military observers being held prisoner in eastern Ukraine, citing medical reasons. Earlier in the day, all eight appeared in public for the first time and, under armed guard, gave assurances they weren't being mistreated.

An Associated Press photographer saw Maj. Thomas Johansson of Sweden get into a car with representatives of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. They then drove away from the city administration building in Slovyansk, which has become the center of the pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Johansson was "released on humanitarian grounds as he has a mild form of diabetes," said Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the city's self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomarev.

The insurgents in Slovyansk have taken a number of people hostage, including journalists and pro-Ukraine activists, as they strengthen their control in the east of the country in defiance of the interim government in Kiev and its Western supporters. On Sunday, they captured three Ukrainian security service officers, who were shown to Russian journalists bloodied and blindfolded with packing tape.

Image: Vacheslav Ponomarev, Axel Schneider, John Christensen
Vacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, center, is flanked by a group of foreign military observers including Axel Schneider, fourth from the left, and John Christensen, third left, a senior Sgt. in the Danish army, being held by Ponomarev's group during a press conference in city hall, Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, April 27, 2014.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Col. Axel Schneider from Germany, who spoke for the group of military observers detained on Friday, stressed that they were on a diplomatic mission under the auspices of the OSCE and weren't spying for NATO, as the insurgents claim.

Schneider said additional proof of this was the participation of the officer from Sweden, which is not a member of NATO.

The observers, who appeared nervous, were in the custody of armed men wearing camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas, who escorted them into the Slovyansk city hall for the news conference and led them away afterward. Schneider, however, said they were being treated as well as possible under the circumstances.

"The mayor of this city granted us his protection and he regarded us as his guests," Schneider told journalists. "I can tell you that the word of the mayor is a word of honor. We have not been touched."

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