DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Representatives of a New York-based aid group were expelled from separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine on Thursday after rebels closed down their operational base, accusing them of spying.
Around 17 foreign and local workers for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were detained in their office in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk while their belongings were searched, a Reuters witness said.
The foreigners were then escorted to a hotel under armed guard before being driven to a separatist roadblock to cross into Ukrainian-controlled territory, the witness said.
Explaining the expulsion, a separatist spokeswoman said the IRC had not registered with rebel authorities and some representatives had used "cloak and dagger" techniques to obtain information on the work of rebel operations.
"Considering this sort of humanitarian aid ... the authorities took the decision to terminate and ban the activities of the IRC," spokeswoman Maria Petrova told journalists in Donetsk.
"Guided by humanitarian principles and as a gesture of good will, all the foreign employees have been deported," she said. She did not elaborate on what would happen to the local staff.
The IRC, whose president is former British foreign minister David Miliband, sent an emergency response team to Donetsk in March, where it has focused on meeting hygiene and safety needs of women and girls affected by the year-long conflict, an IRC spokesman in Britain said.
The organization declined immediate comment on the expulsions.
According to its website, the IRC was founded in 1933 and its teams provide relief, health care and economic support for people affected by conflict and disaster, with special programs for women and children.
More than 6,100 people have died during the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, although the casualty rate has fallen markedly since a tenuous ceasefire took hold in February.
(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Richard Balmforth and Crispian Balmer)