Kiev (AFP) – The OSCE said Sunday the first staff member of its monitoring mission in Ukraine had died after a patrol vehicle hit a landmine in the Russian-backed separatist east.
The announcement saw Kiev and the insurgents quickly trade blame over who was at fault for one of the most diplomatically sensitive episodes since Europe’s only war began more than three years ago.
“Tragic news from Ukraine: SMM patrol drove on mine. One OSCE patrol member killed,” Austrian foreign minister and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s current chairman Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) added later that “two members have been taken to hospital for further examination” but did not give details on their condition.
The organisation’s Kiev office said it could not disclose the victims’ nationalities because their families were still in the process of being notified.
The incident occurred close to Ukraine’s volatile front line near the village of Pryshyb in a rebel-run region of the separatist fiefdom of Lugansk.
“What we have been fearing for years has happened,” said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
– ‘Anti-tank mine’ –
“Unacceptable attacks and unfounded accusations, especially on the part of the separatists, must stop.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instructed Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin to keep the OSCE informed of Kiev’s investigation into the blast.
“This crime must be investigated and the guilty punished without fail,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook.
“Ukraine condemns all forms of constant resistance by the rebels to the OSCE SMM’s work.”
The OSCE team’s 600 members in eastern Ukraine comprise the only independent monitoring mission in the devastated industrial war zone.
They provide daily reports on the fighting and have drawn the insurgents’ ire for accusing them of being responsible for most violations of various truce agreements.
Lugansk rebel police force spokesman Alexander Mazeikin told AFP that two OSCE vehicles were travelling in the rebel-run region when “one of them hit an anti-tank mine”.
The separatists also accused the monitors of veering off the main road and travelling along an unsafe route not agreed with Russian and Ukrainian representatives.
“We know that this patrol team deviated from the main route and was moving along secondary roads, which is prohibited,” the Lugansk rebels said on their news site.
The insurgents’ claim could not be immediately confirmed.
Ukraine’s military said no fighting was occurring in the area because the sides were honouring a temporary truce agreement that went into effect on April 1.
Both Kiev and the West accuse Russia of plotting and backing the conflict in reprisal for the February 2014 ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leadership.
Moscow denies this and in turn accuses Washington of plotting the 2013-14 street protests that ended up allying ex-Soviet Ukraine with the West.
– Uncleared mines –
The war between Kiev’s troops and the insurgents has killed more than 10,000 people and driven at least two million from their homes.
Daily casualties have fallen substantially since the height of the fighting but sporadic clashes drag on because a peace plan has stalled.
The low-level hostilities have been accompanied by regular casualties among civilians and fighters either stepping or driving on mines.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said Thursday it had defused 150,000 explosive devices since the war began.
But it added that only 3,000 of the 700,000 hectares (7,400 of the 1.7 million acres) along which the war is being waged had been cleared of the various types of landmines.
It warned that it may take another 10 to 15 years to make the region completely safe from explosive devices.