UNITED NATIONS — A senior UN diplomat who was sent to the Crimea region of southern Ukraine to assess the Russian military takeover there was threatened by men at gunpoint Wednesday, and aborted his visit a day after it had begun.
The diplomat, Robert Serry, was confronted by a group of 10 to 15 gunmen as he left a meeting at a naval facility in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea region, according to an account of the incident provided by Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general.
Eliasson, speaking to reporters by telephone from Kiev, the national capital, said that the gunmen confronted Serry and demanded that he go straight to the city airport and leave Crimea. Eliasson said that when he refused, they surrounded his car and threatened him, but he was allowed to enter a cafe and call Eliasson. The identities of the gunmen were not clear.
“He is in good shape physically,” Eliasson said. “He is not kidnapped.”
A journalist for the British network ITV, James Mates, who was traveling with Serry and witnessed the incident, reported that Serry was ending the trip. The United Nations later issued a statement saying “Robert Serry is taking a late flight out of Simferopol and will shortly return to Kiev to continue his mission, which was cut short by today’s incident.”
Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Ukraine, serves as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. A fellow diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described him as “no rabble rouser.”
The thwarting of Serry’s visit to Crimea may send a chilling message to other international observers who are on their way to Ukraine on behalf of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Continuing intimidation by pro-Russian forces in Crimea would make it difficult for those observers to do their job, even if they are there specifically to address Moscow’s often-stated concerns about potential abuses of the rights of ethnic Russians, who are a minority in Ukraine as a whole but a majority in Crimea and some other regions of Ukraine, especially in the east.
The United Nations is sending the head of its human rights office, Ivan Simonovic, to lead a team that will visit both western and eastern Ukraine, including Crimea. Eliasson said he hoped Russia would welcome the deployment of the monitors.