WASHINGTON -- Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Simon Ostrovsky has been among the most visible Western reporters covering the story. This week, he became part of the story.
A leader of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine said on April 23 that the U.S. journalist is being held captive as a "bargaining chip" and accused him of working for Ukrainian nationalist groups, escalating international concern about his safety.
(UPDATE: Ostrovsky was freed on April 24)
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-styled "mayor" of the city of Slovyansk, told Gazeta.ru in an interview published on April 23 that Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was being held because pro-Russian militias are being targeted by Ukrainian forces loyal to the government in Kyiv.
"We need prisoners. We need a bargaining chip," Ponomaryov was quoted as saying
. "Many of our comrades are locked up. They're being taken to Kyiv and tortured. Well, we're doing the same thing. Taking them prisoner, I mean."
A veteran journalist who has reported widely throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union, Ostrovsky has produced dozens of visceral and often harrowing video reports for Brooklyn-based Vice from the frontlines of the turmoil in Ukraine over the past two months.
U.S. and European officials have expressed alarm about Ostrovsky's whereabouts and safety after he was reportedly detained with four other journalists at a checkpoint controlled by pro-Russian militias in Slovyansk on April 21.
The other journalists were released the following morning, but Ostrovsky was not, according to "Time" correspondent Simon Shuster
, who was among the group detained at the checkpoint.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed "deep concern about the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen journalist in Slovyansk, Ukraine, reportedly at the hands of pro-Russian separatists."
"We likewise condemn the taking of any hostages, including journalists, in eastern Ukraine," she told an April 23 press briefing in Washington. "We call for their immediate release and call on Russia to use its influence to ensure they are freed immediately."
Psaki, who did not identify Ostrovsky by name, added that U.S. officials have raised these concerns with their Ukrainian counterparts.
The representative on media freedom from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dunja Mijatovic, said in an April 22 statement that she was "deeply concerned about the ongoing negative pattern in relation to journalists' safety in Ukraine."
"I call on all those responsible to stop harassing and attacking journalists and let them do their job," Mijatovic said
. "Simon Ostrovsky should be released immediately."
In a statement issued on April 22, Vice said that it is "aware" of Ostrovsky's situation and is "working to ensure the safety and security of our friend and colleague."
'Teaching Him A Lesson'
Ostrovsky is one of 16 people kidnapped in Slovyansk and the town of Horlivka in the past two weeks, the "Kyiv Post" reported
on April 23. Some have been released, while others have turned up dead, the newspaper said.
Ostrovsky's disappearance has sparked conspiracy theories about his allegiances, focused on the fact that he is both an American and Israeli citizen. At the same time, however, he has been accused of being in cahoots with the far-right Ukrainian group Right Sector.
Ponomaryov, the separatist leader in Slovyansk, told the Interfax news agency
that his forces believe Ostrovsky is working as an informant for Right Sector -- an allegation his friends and fellow journalists dismiss as ludicrous -- while also noting that he has a U.S. and Israeli passport.
The Kremlin-friendly Russian television network NTV ran a report on its website with an inflammatory headline: "Journalist With Dual Citizenship Turned Out To Be A Right Sector Informant."
ABC News correspondent Alexander Marquardt wrote on his Twitter feed on April 23 that Ponomaryov told him Ostrovsky was spreading false information and that the captive journalist "needs to learn a lesson."
The separatist leader added that Ostrovsky is being treated and fed well, as well as "working on material for his next book," Marquardt reported on his Twitter feed.