(CNSNews.com) – Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine blamed Ukrainian special forces for the death of an American observer killed in an apparent landmine explosion Sunday – saying it part of the “provocation” increasingly deployed by Russia and its proxies engaged in various conflicts.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrey Marochko, spokesman for the “people’s militia” of the self-proclaimed Luhansk (aka Lugansk) People’s Republic, blamed Ukrainian “saboteurs.”
“We have been warning international observers about possible provocations by Kiev forces, about saboteur squads operating on the contact line,” the Lugansk media center quoted Marochko as saying. He added that “Ukrainian army special operations forces” members had been spotted in the area.
The “contact line” is the de facto boundary between areas controlled by Ukraine government forces and the separatists.
The American, a paramedic, was the first member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s unarmed, 600-strong special monitoring mission (SMM) in Ukraine to be killed on duty.
Two other OSCE monitors, nationals of Germany and the Czech Republic, were injured when their patrol vehicle hit a landmine or similar device in the Luhansk area.
“An OSCE SMM patrol consisting of two armored vehicles and six patrol members was driving near non-government controlled Pryshyb in the Luhansk region when one of the vehicles was struck by an explosion, likely a mine,” the SMM deputy chief Alexander Hug told reporters in Kiev.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry blamed the separatists, noting that the explosion occurred in an area under their control. It described the incident as “confirmation of Moscow’s and its puppets’ attempts to intimidate the OSCE and nullify the efforts of Ukraine and the SMM to stabilize the situation on the contact line.”
The State Department, while stopping short of blaming the separatist rebels directly, said the death reinforces the need for all parties, “and particularly the Russian-led separatist forces,” to keep to their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreements – ceasefire deals negotiated between Ukraine’s government and the separatists.
Luhansk and another area in the east under the control of pro-Russian separatists, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, are together sometimes labeled Donbass. Further south-west, Crimea also remains split from the rest of Ukraine since Russia annexed it after a 2014 referendum rejected by most of the international community.
In its reaction to Sunday’s deadly blast, the Russian foreign ministry also pushed the “provocation” line suggested by its allies in Luhansk.
“The circumstances of the incident indicate a high probability of a provocation geared at breaking down the settlement process in Donbass,” it said.
The foreign ministry said incidents of this nature, and the general increased tensions, were “obviously” in the interests of those reluctant to implement the Minsk agreements.
Expressing condolences over the observer’s death, the Russian ministry added, “We are resentful at this cynical action that claimed a human life and that was aimed against the international monitors working there for the sake of peace. We call for a thorough and objective investigation and demand those responsible be called to justice.”
(“Provocation” is the same term used by Russia and the Assad regime in seeking to blame anti-Assad rebels for a chemical weapons attack that prompted a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase earlier this month. President Vladimir Putin in an interview raised the possibility that the use of deadly toxin “was a staged provocation, a deliberate incident designed to create a pretext for increasing pressure on the legitimate Syrian authorities.”
And Moscow continues to allege anti-Russian “provocations” in Montenegro, where authorities accused Russia of being involved in an alleged attempt – denied by Russia – to assassinate and overthrow the government of the pro-Western prime minister last year.)
State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed the importance of a full investigation into the death of the American observer and said the U.S. “urges Russia to use its influence with the separatists to allow the OSCE to conduct a full, transparent, and timely investigation.”
The message was reiterated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Toner said.
Tillerson also reiterated that the U.S. remains committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, “and confirmed that sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine and fully implements its commitments in the Minsk agreements.”
More than 9,700 people have been killed since 2014 in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, an ongoing episode that has badly damaged relations between Russia and the NATO alliance.