Donetsk: Tensions were running at fever pitch in eastern Ukraine today on the eve of an independence referendum, as rebels briefly held several Red Cross staff on suspicion of espionage.
While preparations were in full swing for the disputed vote in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, the port city of Mariupol to the south observed a day of mourning for at least 21 killed in violent clashes yesterday.
The West believes the referendum could lead to the two regions asking to join Russia and has stressed that holding the vote will deepen what is already the worst crisis in relations with Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said nine of its staff -- four from Donetsk, four from Kiev and one from Switzerland -- were held "for a few hours" before being released apparently unharmed.
"What we know is that no one was injured," David Pierre Marquet, ICRC spokesman for Europe and Central Asia, told AFP.
"They were there to evaluate the needs of the population in Donetsk. That is probably why they were freed so quickly, their mandate was very clear," he added.
Earlier today, Kiril Rudenko, deputy spokesman for the self-proclaimed "People`s Republic of Donetsk", said the Red Cross workers had been detained because the rebels thought they were spies.
"They were arrested yesterday. We suspect they were engaged in espionage and we are currently checking these accusations," said Rudenko.
The brief detention underscored jitters in the two regions of east Ukraine ahead of the disputed referendum likely to result in a new spike of geopolitical tension.
Rebels in the two regions -- with a total population of 7.3 million, out of 46 million for all of Ukraine -- defied Russian President Vladimir Putin`s call to postpone the vote to allow for a dialogue to dial down the crisis.
In a sudden about-face on Wednesday that stunned the world, Putin also backed planned presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 but only if Kiev stopped its campaign to flush out separatists from some dozen towns and cities they control in the region.
However, there seemed little sign of an end to the bloodshed that has pushed Ukraine to the brink of civil war as violence erupted in the southern port city of Mariupol on Friday, claiming at least 21 lives.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page that the chief of the city`s police force had also been captured and that snipers had been active during the violence that occurred as Ukraine commemorated the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.