- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Two Russian soldiers captured while fighting in war-torn eastern Ukraine are being transported to the capital, Kiev, a Ukrainian military spokesman said Monday.

The Russians were wounded and taken prisoner near the front line town of Shchastia in the Luhansk region on Sunday, Ukrainian officials reported.

Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have been fighting government troops for a year, and Russia has vehemently denied it is supplying them either with weaponry or troops. When several Russian soldiers were captured on Ukrainian territory last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin said they had simply got lost.

Asked about the new reports Monday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov again denied any Russian involvement.

“We have said repeatedly that there are no Russian troops in Donbass,” Peskov said, referring to eastern Ukraine.

The separatist mouthpiece Luhansk Information Center on Sunday said the men identified by Ukraine as Russian officers were in fact two policemen from Luhansk who had been taken prisoner near Shchastia.

Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff, told The Associated Press on Monday that the two men are now being questioned by the Ukrainian Security Service and are on their way to Kiev where they will face the media.

Another Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told a televised briefing on Monday that the capture of the men will no longer allow Russia to deny its military presence in Ukraine.

“They were there on a mission and they were killing our people,” he said.

Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko has hinted that Ukraine will not seek to exchange the men for any Ukrainians that the separatists or Russia may be holding. He was quoted Sunday by the Interfax agency as saying that the men “are facing criminal responsibility.”

A video posted by a member of parliament on Sunday showed one man who said he was a Russian Army sergeant.

The young man was shown lying in a hospital bed and introduced himself as Sgt. Alexander Alexandrov of the Russian Special Forces from the Volga River city of Togliatti. He said he was operating in the area in a group consisting of 14 men and had been based in the rebel stronghold Luhansk since March 6.

He and his comrades had been rotating in and out of the area around Shchastia every four to five days, he said.

More than 6,100 people have been killed in the conflict, which has left large parts of Ukraine’s industrial heartlands in ruins. A cease-fire brokered by Russia and Western nations in February has made the fighting less intense and deadly but the skirmishes between the separatists and Ukrainian troops are still a daily occurrence.

Grigory Maksimets, a medic of the pro-Kiev volunteer Aidar battalion, told the AP that he attended to the men when they were delivered late Saturday to his hospital in Shchastia, a town less than 20 kilometers north of Luhansk and home to a strategic power station.

One man had been wounded in the shoulder and the other one in the right leg, said Maksimets, who works in intensive care. The men were caught by Ukrainian troops while on a reconnaissance mission around the power station, he said.

The men both introduced themselves as Russian soldiers and were worried that the battalion’s doctors wanted to take their organs for sale, he added.

“They asked not to be sedated because they were afraid we would take their organs,” Maksimets told the AP, adding their Russian commanders had warned them about this.

Two Ukrainian troops were killed in fighting on Sunday, military spokesman Lysenko said, and two volunteers died when their car hit a land mine in the Luhansk region.

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldier Mothers’ Committee, said they have plenty of evidence showing that Russian soldiers have been sent to Ukraine.

“There are officers and soldiers there,” she told the AP on Monday. “Indeed, they have no identities, no documents and no uniforms, they have no ranks and so on, but all this is a crime on the part of the Russian state. By sending out officers and soldiers of the armed forces with that status, our state has no means to protect them.”

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said she welcomed the Ukrainian government’s assurances that the soldiers “are being well taken care of” and that the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross would be allowed to visit them.

It wasn’t clear if she discussed the issue with Russian officials during her talks in Moscow earlier on Sunday.


Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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