The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Friday that another one of its election-monitoring teams is missing in eastern Ukraine after a fierce escalation of violence between pro-Russian separatists and government forces over the past few days since the country’s presidential and mayoral elections. The OSCE said it lost contact with a five-member team of monitors in the Luhansk region Thursday evening. The organization said the five were in addition to four others being held by separatists in the Donetsk region since Monday. Both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were declared “sovereign” republics by separatists after a disputed May 11 vote on self-rule. The OSCE said it lost contact with the Luhansk monitors, who were traveling in two vehicles, after they were stopped by armed men.
The development came as Ukraine’s top defense official vowed that the government in Kiev would press on with military operations in the embattled east until the pro-Russian rebels capitulate. His comments followed several days of renewed, fierce clashes.
“We will work until the region begins to live and work normally,” acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval said at a cabinet briefing Friday, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
Despite President-elect Petro Poroshenko’s promise to crush the rebellion in the east and unite the fractured country in hours, separatists backed by Moscow dealt a heavy blow to Ukrainian forces Thursday near the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk. Rebels there shot down a military transport helicopter, killing a general and as many as 13 others, according to Ukraine’s acting president. Earlier in the week, Ukrainian forces inflicted heavy losses on separatists in a two-day gun battle for Donetsk’s international airport.