BERLIN – Germany and France said Thursday it appears that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine downed a drone being used by neutral European observers and demanded accountability.
In a strongly-worded joint statement released by Germany's Foreign Ministry, the two nations said the long-range drone had gone missing shortly after having spotted a surface-to-air missile system in an area not controlled by the Ukrainian government close to the Russian border.
"Evidence collected by (European monitors) suggests Russia and the separatists it backs bear responsibility for the targeting and downing of the (drone), blinding the mission at this particular spot," they said.
Germany and France, which have been working with Russia and Ukraine in so-called Normandy Format meetings to bring an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, said the downing of the drone is a "clear violation" of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission.
"This downing is a severe incident that stands in clear violation of SMM's mandate as adopted by all OSCE participating states," they said. "It constitutes an inadmissible culmination of continued interference, intimidation and restriction of SMM monitors' work, who act as eyes and ears of the international community on the ground."
They noted that in recent weeks, their long-range drone "while being heavily jammed," had also observed convoys entering Ukrainian territory across a non-official border crossing from Russia on "multiple occasions."
It had been following a convoy of seven trucks near the Russian border, some 66 kilometers (41 miles) east of Donetsk, at the time it was lost, they said.
"Those responsible for such attacks on SMM personnel and equipment must be held accountable," they said.
Efforts to find the wreckage have been fruitless, but footage from smaller drones sent up to scour the area showed multiple wheel tracks in a field near where it was thought to have gone down, the OSCE said.
The separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted after Russia's annexation of Crimea and has killed more than 10,000 since April 2014. A 2015 peace agreement signed in Minsk has helped reduce hostilities, but clashes continue.
In August, the OSCE said more than 160 people had been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the year.