KIEV: A second team of European monitors was reported missing in restive eastern Ukraine on Friday despite army claims it had regained control over much of the separatist rust belt.
The United States meanwhile voiced growing alarm over the sudden appearance of fighters from Russia’s war-ravaged Chechnya among rebels who have been waging a seven-week insurgency against Kiev’s rule.
The rebels for their part dismissed speculation of a rift in their ranks after a dozen local militants were evicted from their seat of power in Donetsk by a brigade comprised largely of Chechens and other Russians from the violence-plagued North Caucasus.
The increasingly volatile conflict — growing ever more complex as rivalries emerge among rebel commanders — has ensnared a steadily climbing number of Europeans tasked with helping to resolve a crisis that has threatened the very survival of Ukraine.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Friday that it had been unable to establish contact with four of its monitors and their local translator since the group was stopped by “armed men” at a roadblock in the eastern region of Lugansk.
The Vienna-based organisation — formed in the 1970s as a forum for dialogue during the Cold War and now a principal player in the worst East-West standoff since that era — added that another four members detained by rebels in the neighbouring Donetsk region on Monday were still missing.
Rebels commanders in both regions have confirmed their detention of the monitors and refused to say when they might be released.
But Ukraine did manage to briefly skirt one crisis on Friday — this one economic — when a top EU official announced that a new and previously unplanned round of talks would be held in Brussels on Monday aimed at averting an imminent cut in Russian gas supplies.
Western leaders have long accused the Kremlin of choreographing the insurgency in order to upset the rule of the European-aligned team that rose to power in Kiev in February — a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin denies.
The defence ministry said on Friday that the eastern insurgency has thus far claimed the lives of 49 Ukrainian servicemen and 128 civilians and separatists.
But the recent appearance among the rebels of trained gunmen from Chechnya — a mostly Muslim region that fell under Kremlin control following two post-Soviet wars for independence — has fuelled fears of the conflict being transformed into a proxy war involving elements from other unstable regions of the former USSR.
Ukraine’s acting defence minister said his forces were in high spirits despite the downing of a military helicopter on Thursday by the rebels that killed 11 soldiers and a general.
“Our armed forces have completed their assigned missions and completely cleared the southern and western parts of the Donetsk region and the northern part of the Lugansk region from the separatists,” Mykhailo Koval told reporters.
Rebels in control of the Lugansk and Donetsk government buildings have declared independence and are seeking a merger with Russia similar to that accomplished by Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea following its seizure by pro-Kremlin troops in March.
Petro Poroshenko — a 48-year-old confectionery tycoon who backs closer ties with Europe but once enjoyed good relations with top Russian officials — won nearly 54.7 percent of Sunday’s presidential ballot thanks to a message focused on bringing a quick end to the separatist drive.
He has since reached out to Putin and promised to hold his first talks with the Russian leader when they both attend D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
But Putin has yet to confirm the meeting and Washington has once again called on Moscow to take a more constructive approach.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the recent arrival of Chechens was a dangerous development that Putin should quickly address.
“There are still danger signs there that we hope will change,” the top US diplomat told PBS television.
Signs of a rift among the rebels appeared evident on Thursday when members of the so-called Vostok (East) Brigade that is comprised of many Chechens drove a dozen local separatists from the Donetsk administration building they had seized on April 6.
But local Donetsk commander Denis Pushilin denied on Friday that a “coup” had been staged within the separatist ranks.
“All the original leaders will remain in place,” Russian news agencies quoted Pushilin as saying.
Ukraine’s teetering economy risks being pushed into a still deeper hole if Russia follows through on its threat to cut gas deliveries should Kiev fail to cover billions of dollars in debts.
Kiev disputes a much higher price for gas set by Moscow and EU-brokered talks aimed at finding a compromise have failed so far.
But Ukraine’s state energy company said on Friday that it had made a $786 million transfer to Russia’s state-held energy group Gazprom.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, after talks with both sides in Berlin, said that this payment suited Moscow enough to continue talks. Many analysts think an interim price agreement is within reach.
Two previous “gas wars” between Ukraine and Russia in 2006 and 2009 resulted in brief disruptions in European deliveries that prompted Brussels to begin searching for alternative energy routes.
Europe receives about 15 percent of its total gas supplies from Russia through Ukraine.