Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday defended his decision to agree to a hostage-taker’s bizarre demand that he post a movie recommendation to end a 12-hour stand-off.
Zelensky described how he negotiated personally on Tuesday evening with a gunman who was holding 13 hostages on a bus in Lutsk, around 400 kilometres (250 miles) west of capital Kiev.
The tense stand-off ended after the president agreed to post a video of himself recommending a 2005 US documentary narrated by actor Joaquin Phoenix called “Earthlings”, which condemns humans’ mistreatment of animals.
“We have a result — everyone is alive. We are not fighting for (approval) ratings — we are fighting for life,” Zelensky said in a statement, after some criticised him for giving in to the gunman’s demands.
The SBU security service said all the bus passengers were released unharmed. The hostage-taker had earlier fired shots and thrown an explosive package.
Zelensky said he agreed in a phone-call with the man, identified as 44-year-old Maksym Kryvosh, that “he would release three people, and after that I would record a video.”
– ‘Unstable’ –
The armed man complied and freed three hostages: a man, a pregnant woman and a child.
In response, the president posted a video message on Facebook urging people to watch the documentary.
Kryvosh agreed to release all his captives half an hour later, Zelensky said.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Kryvosh, who was armed with a pistol, a rifle and a hand grenade, came out of the bus following the negotiations.
Footage published by Ukrainian officials showed police escorting hostages away while armed special forces detained Kryvosh, lying face-down on the pavement.
The SBU security service classed the incident as an “act of terror” and “hostage-taking” and Kryvosh faces up to 15 years in prison.
After the crisis ended, Zelensky deleted the short video he had posted.
“Today loved ones can hug everybody who languished all day on the bus with a gun pointed at them,” he wrote on Facebook.
“We did not lose a single person,” added the president, who was a television comedian before his 2019 election win.
The hostage-taker is currently in a temporary detention centre, police reported.
Kryvosh had previously spent around 10 years in prison on charges including fraud and illegal handling of weapons. Interior minister Avakov described him as “unstable.”
Posts in a Twitter account in Kryvosh’s name, later suspended, claimed he had bombs and asked top Ukrainian celebrities to post anti-establishment messages on social media.
The security service said on Wednesday that it had detained several suspected accomplices.
The head of the Lutsk branch of the SBU, Pavlo Danyukov, said at a briefing that the hostages were in satisfactory condition and had not suffered any physical violence during the stand-off.
– ‘This is a mistake’ –
The US Embassy in Ukraine tweeted a message of praise, saying: “We join the people of Ukraine in celebrating the safe release of the hostages… and commend Ukrainian authorities’ success in securing their release.”
Some Ukrainians criticised Zelensky for his concession to the hostage-taker, however.
Many likened the incident to an episode of the popular British television series “Black Mirror” where the prime minister fulfils the grotesque demands of a kidnapper holding a member of the royal family.
Natalia Delgyado, a Kiev-based Facebook user, wondered “whether Zelensky would have fulfilled the terrorist’s demands if he had demanded public sex with a pig like in the plot of the Black Mirror episode”.
“This is a mistake. We should not negotiate with terrorists,” Kiev-based lawyer Igor Pashnev wrote on Facebook.
But another Facebook user, Eduard Runin, from Kharkiv, praised Zelensky for choosing the option of “fulfilling the demands of a terrorist and keeping people alive.”