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Ukraine Conflict Monitors Relaunch Long-Range Surveillance Drone Program


An OSCE drone on a test flight near Mariupol in October 2014

KYIV – The European security organization responsible for monitoring the deadly conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine will reintroduce its long-range drone program more than a year and a half after it was dropped due to repeated shoot-downs.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OSCE SMM) said in a statement that it will officially relaunch the program on March 28, near the government-controlled eastern Ukrainian city of Kostyantynivka.

The drones will help "augment and complement its monitoring activities and to overcome impediments to monitoring in eastern Ukraine," it said.

The announcement comes amid fresh reports of what a Ukrainian volunteer military group alleges is a new Russian electronic-warfare system deployed near the front line of the ongoing conflict.

The OSCE SMM long-range drone program was nixed in August 2016 after several of its drones were downed by rifle fire, surface-to-air missiles, and military-grade electronic jamming equipment. The organization has continued to fly mid- and short-range drones with more limited abilities.

The OSCE at the time did not assign responsibility for the drone downings, citing a lack of access to the crash sites, according to Foreign Policy magazine. But senior U.S. and Ukrainian officials said the Russia-backed separatists had shot the drones down to conceal their actions.

The OSCE SMM told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments that the organization had signed a new service contract and will be resuming long-range drone operations with the Schiebel Camcopter S-100 after a testing phase.

The monitoring mission said it could not disclose "for commercial reasons" how many unmanned aerial vehicles it would be using, but it said the size of the fleet “will allow the SMM to support its efforts to monitor the situation equally on both sides of the contact line in Donetsk and Luhansk region."

The Schiebel Camcopter S-100 drones, which could fly up to 150 kilometers, played a crucial role in spotting artillery attacks, troop advances, and the positioning of prohibited weapons -- all violations of a 3-year-old cease-fire deal known as Minsk II, which has not ended the war.

More than 10,300 people have been killed since it broke out in April 2014, after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and stoked separatism in the east following the ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, whose decision to scrap a landmark agreement with the European Union prompted massive protests in Kyiv.

The OSCE SMM describes itself as an unarmed, civilian mission with an around-the-clock presence in all regions of Ukraine. Its main tasks are to observe and report impartially on the situation throughout the country and to facilitate dialogue among all parties to the conflict. A majority of its hundreds of monitors are positioned in war-torn eastern Ukraine, where the Russia-backed separatists hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

The revival of the OSCE SMM’s long-range drone program comes amid reports suggesting the separatists have employed what may be a new electronic-warfare system.

On March 20, the Ukrainian NGO Come Back Alive published a drone video showing footage filmed by a drone over a separatist outpost near the separatist-controlled city of Horlivka. Spotted in the footage appears to be an electronic-warfare system of unknown origin which flashed a light toward the drone that caused it to temporarily lose control.

Come Back Alive alleged that the mysterious system had been brought in from Russia.

Moscow has denied providing the separatist forces with weapons despite what Kyiv and NATO say is evidence proving that it has done so.

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