Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east have undertaken an exchange of prisoners in a step that observers hope will help push the two sides towards a peace deal to end their conflict, which has lasted for more than five years.
The prisoner swap, billed as an “all-for-all” exchange between Kyiv and the two Kremlin-supported breakaway eastern regions, was brokered during talks this month between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, amid renewed efforts to reach a ceasefire.
The first of scores of prisoners to change hands crossed through a checkpoint on the front line of the conflict on Sunday afternoon, watched over by armed troops from both sides. Live footage streamed over the internet by Ukraine’s presidential office showed buses with prisoners parked at a crossing point.
The office of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted at around 4pm Kyiv time saying: “The mutual release of detained persons is completed . . . 76 of ours are safe in Ukraine-controlled territory . . . details later.”
They are to arrive by flight to Kyiv this evening, the president’s spokesperson Iuliia Mendel said.
Russian state-run television channels whose correspondents were at the border crossing confirmed the swap had taken place.
In a statement published on Twitter, the US embassy in Kyiv welcomed the “return of liberated captives from Russian-controlled Donbas, a agreed at the December 9 Normandy summit”.
“Recognising that Russia’s ongoing aggression confronts Ukraine’s leadership with difficult choices, we stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian partners and the many Ukrainians who remain in captivity in Russia and Crimea,” the statement said.
Liudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said that one group of those freed consisted of four soldiers who had been detained in eastern Ukraine when the war erupted after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Ukrainian television reports estimated that Ukraine would in return hand over around 120 prisoners including Russian-backed separatist fighters, collaborators and Russians detained on Ukrainian soil for alleged subversive activities.
Russian news agencies said a total of 200 people had been identified for the exchange by both sides, citing unnamed sources.
The prisoner exchange followed a swap of detainees between Kyiv and Moscow earlier this year, and was seen by observers as progress in efforts to bring an end to a conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives, making it the bloodiest war in Europe since the 1990s Balkans conflict.
Hopes of a settlement rose after the April election of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who won a landslide 73 per cent of the vote on a promise to end the war.
But many analysts say a full peace deal will be extremely hard to reach, given how entrenched both sides have become.
Like his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Mr Zelensky has brushed aside Russian demands that Kyiv should grant deep and permanent autonomy to the far eastern regions, offering instead to grant them the same decentralised form of government that is being implemented in other parts of Ukraine.
“Today’s prisoner exchange in Donbass will bring relief to the persons involved and their families, but it will not bring the settlement any closer,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, on Twitter. “The conflict is much more likely to become frozen than resolved.”
In a sign of the difficulty Mr Zelensky faces, a Kyiv court’s decision to release five former riot police as part of the prisoner exchange sparked public anger in the Ukrainian capital. They had been held over their involvement in shooting protesters during the 2014 Maidan revolution, which ousted a pro-Russian Ukrainian president.
Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, who was detained in Crimea in 2014 and later jailed in Russia before being released earlier this year, criticised the decision to hand over the former riot police and Mr Zelensky’s failure to secure the return of all Ukrainians held in Russia.
“Not all of our boys will be freed,” he said, pointing to “innocent” Crimean Tatars and others who are still held in “Russian jails”.
“Ukraine is handing over real killers” in a “step which robs us of the most important [thing] — justice”, he added.