World

Ukraine: Rebels and govt swap first prisoners under new deal

Ukraine: Rebels and govt swap first prisoners under new deal

Ukrainian authorities and separatist rebels fighting in the country's east exchanged hundreds of captives on Wednesday, in the first major prisoner swap this year, as the conflict that has lasted more than three years continues to simmer.

The Orthodox Patriarch had previously met the leaders of the eastern Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Alexandr Zakharchenko and Leonid Pasechnik, respectively.

The Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the exchange of 74 Ukrainian hostages through his Facebook account. A Reuters photographer at the scene saw the Ukrainian prisoners being loaded onto buses in the town of Horlivka and taken to territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

The exact number of prisoners exchanged is uncertain. Twenty people who had been held in Ukrainian government custody refused to return to pro-Russia breakaway regions, Kiev said.

According to Poroshenko, among the prisoners handed to Ukraine were a historian and a "cyborg" - the nickname Ukrainians gave to soldiers who defended Donetsk airport in one of the conflict's most intense battles in 2014.

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine started in April 2014 after Russian Federation annexed Ukraine's Crimean penninsula.

The peace protocol called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, as well as the release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held prisoners, dialogue on new local elections and the securing of Ukraine's eastern border with Russian Federation.

Germany welcomed on Wednesday a suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that armed UN peacekeepers could be deployed to eastern Ukraine to help protect ceasefire monitors, but said any prospect of lifting sanctions was still a way off. Putin said on Tuesday that Russia meant to draft a UN Security Council resolution to this end, saying it would help resolve the problem in eastern Ukraine, though he also said preconditions would have to be met before any deployment.

Germany's foreign ministry said it was a significant step in implementing the ceasefire agreement agreed in the Belarus capital Minsk.


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