By Alissa de Carbonnel and Thomas Grove
MOSCOW/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Days before he was taken prisoner, the German colonel who leads the team of European observers being held by separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine described his technique for working in dangerous hotspots.
"In a moment when the situation gets tense I back off," Colonel Axel Schneider told a Reuters reporter in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Tuesday, when asked about the challenges of operating near the flashpoint city of Slaviansk.
"I don't wear a helmet, I don't wear a flak vest," he said.
"I am here with my arms open and a smile on my face."
Schneider's approach did not work on Friday, when the bus carrying him and his seven fellow observers was boarded by pro-Russian militiamen at a checkpoint on the edge of Slaviansk, in eastern Ukraine.
On Sunday, after three days being detained on suspicion of being NATO spies - including one night spent in a cellar - Schneider and his colleagues were paraded by their captors at a news conference in Slaviansk's city administration building.
Schneider, wearing a plaid button-down shirt, looked tense but was calm and deliberate as he said he and his group had not been harmed and were in good health, and were anxious to go back to their home countries.
As he spoke, guards in camouflage fatigues and balaclavas, carrying Kalashnikov rifles walked around the room. Later, Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described as "revolting" the scene of the prisoners being paraded in public.
Schneider said the group came to Slaviansk without weapons and were there strictly in line with their mandate under the rules of the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to carry out military verification work.
"We were accommodated in a cellar. We had to set up conditions for ourselves," said Schneider, describing what happened after they were seized. "Although it was miserable we made the best of it."
"Since yesterday we've been in a more comfortable room with heating. We have daylight, and an air conditioner."
THINKING OF HOME
Schneider, who spoke on behalf of his team and alternated between his native German and fluent English, told reporters he had "not been touched," and that there had been no physical mistreatment of the group.
"All the European officers are in good health and no one is sick," Schneider said.
"We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries," Schneider said. "We wish from the bottom of our hearts to go back to our nations as soon and as quickly as possible."
Schneider's mission was made up of seven officers seconded from European militaries and one translator. Four of them were German, and there was one national each from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Poland and Sweden.
The Swedish team member was allowed to leave with a delegation of OSCE negotiators on Sunday. The separatists said they let him go on the grounds that he had mild diabetes, but had no immediate plans to free the others.
Before Sunday's news conference, the only glimpse the outside world had of the detained observers was when the Slaviansk militia allowed reporters to photograph identification cards confiscated from them.
Schneider's German military identification card listed his name, his rank of "Oberst," or colonel, his height at 183 cm (six feet), his service number and his eye color.
Contacted by Reuters on Sunday, Germany's defense ministry declined to give any details on Schneider.
Schneider was featured in a January 28, 2014 article in German newspaper "Aachener Zeitung" about how the German military had raised money for a children's charity. In his grey dress uniform, a smiling Schneider was pictured handing over a cheque for 2,097.95 euros ($2,900).
The article described him as working for the "Zentrum für Verifikationsaufgaben," or center for verification tasks of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
This center is located in Geilenkirchen, close to the Dutch border, and is responsible for the coordination of German military observers or arms control inspectors.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Peter Graff)