Kiev - Ukraine said on Wednesday that pro-Russian militants had freed 56 “hostages” after US and EU diplomats set up their first direct talks with Moscow and Kiev aimed at resolving the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Ukraine's SBU security service said the group walked free from its headquarters in Lugansk after separatists seized the building and other key government offices at the weekend in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland.
The separatist raids have drawn Western charges that Russia - its troops already massed along Ukraine's border in response to its ouster of a Moscow-backed regime - is backing the separatists and plotting to grab more territory after annexing Crimea last month.
But US and EU diplomats also crucially agreed with Moscow that it was time to deescalate the worst European security crisis in decades by setting up a four-way round of negotiations involving Kiev next week.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's office confirmed she would meet US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov along with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsya in one of the European capitals.
A source in the Russian foreign ministry told Moscow's state-run RIA Novosti news agency the talks would probably be held at the end of the week.
The breakthrough agreement was reached after hundreds of irate activists occupied a series of strategic buildings in the east at the weekend and declared independence for the bustling region of Donetsk.
Ukraine's embattled leaders poured extra security forces into the flashpoint regions and regained control of the government seat in Kharkiv on Tuesday after a night of violence that included petrol bombs and stun grenades being hurled at police.
But the militants remain holed up behind barricades of razor wire and old tyres in the administration building in Donetsk and the SBU headquarters in Lugansk - the site of the alleged hostage taking.
The SBU had accused the Kalashnikov-wielding separatists of rigging the building with explosives and refusing to let 60 people already inside “leave the building and return home”.
The claim sparked fears that Kiev's Western-backed leaders had run out of patience and were preparing to storm the occupied offices after labelling the separatists “terrorists”.
But the SBU said Wednesday that 56 people had walked free thanks to two rounds of negotiations led by unidentified lawmakers from Ukraine's parliament.
The agency did not specify how many people were still allegedly being held against their will.
“No one was injured,” the SBU said in a statement.
“In order to minimise the risks to the lives and safety of citizens, the negotiations process is continuing.”
Yet Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov stressed that the “anti-terrorist operation” in cities along Russia's border continued.
“We have two options: political - in other words, negotiations - or the use of force,” Avakov told reporters.
“I think that a resolution to this crisis will be found within the next 48 hours.”
Months of deadly political turmoil threaten not only to break up the vast nation on the European Union's eastern frontier along its ethnic divisions but also plunge Moscow's relations with the West to a low that may take decades to repair.
Kerry appeared to cast aside the last vestiges of diplomatic decorum Tuesday by explicitly accusing the Kremlin of sending operatives into eastern Ukraine to foment unrest.
“Everything that we've seen in the last 48 hours, from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine, tells us that they've been sent there determined to create chaos,” Kerry told US lawmakers.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague backed up that message by noting the flareup bore “all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine”.
And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed on a visit to Paris that Moscow would be making a “historic mistake” if it were to intervene in Ukraine any further.
But the Russian foreign ministry argued on Wednesday that “the United States and Ukraine have no reason to worry” because Moscow had no intention to invade its ex-Soviet neighbour. - AFP