OSCE team freed in east Ukraine, where fighting rages

OSCE team freed in east Ukraine, where fighting rages
Ukrainian soldiers (foreground) face Pro-Russia separatists blocking the Kramators to Slavyansk road to prevent the Ukrainian national guard troops from advancing on May 2, 2014.

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine - Seven European OSCE inspectors were freed on Saturday in a flashpoint town in east Ukraine where surrounded pro-Moscow rebels are battling a fierce military assault amid a soaring national death toll.

The unexpected release was a bolt of good news in Ukraine's startling descent into chaos, after a bloody day in which more than 50 people died - most of them in a horrific inferno in the southern city of Odessa.

On the outskirts of Slavyansk, where the OSCE team was held, AFP journalists witnessed a ferocious firefight between Kalashnikov-armed insurgents and soldiers outflanking their checkpoint.

One man was shot dead and lay in the road, while a fatally wounded driver gasped for breath at the wheel of his car shot up some 200 metres (yards) from the checkpoint, said the journalists, who were briefly pinned down between both sides as bullets flew. Armoured vehicles fired occasional heavy-calibre rounds at the outnumbered insurgents.

At least nine people died the day before around Slavyansk, when the military tightened its noose on the town but lost two helicopter gunships to shoulder-launched missiles in the process.

All of Ukraine was reeling Saturday at news of 42 deaths the day before in the southern city of Odessa, where pro-Russian and pro-Kiev militants clashed savagely and repeatedly.

Most of the deaths - many believed to be pro-Russians - were in a trade union building set alight as each side lobbed Molotov cocktails at the other. The sudden surge in violence sent international tensions between Cold War-era enemies Washington and Moscow soaring.

The United States says it is on the verge of declaring sanctions that would pull the rug out from Russia's already weakening economy if Moscow's "interference" blocks a May 25 presidential election seen as crucial to stabilising Ukraine.

But the Kremlin said it was "absurd" now to go ahead with that poll, adding also that Russia had "lost its influence" over the armed pro-Moscow militants in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - whom the West sees as masterminding Ukraine's insurgency despite his denials - has kept an estimated 40,000 of his troops massed on Ukraine's border for two months, in preparation for an invasion he has said he "very much hopes" he will not have to order.

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