Ukrainian authorities and separatist rebels swap prisoners

First Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Iryna Herashchenko embraces a prisoner of war from the Ukrainian armed forces during an exchange of captives in Horlivka in Donetsk region Ukraine on Wednesday

Amid fresh reports of fighting in eastern Ukraine, the largest prisoner exchange of the conflict has taken place between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist rebels. The Ukrainian state security service said 103 prisoners remained in separatist hands.

"It was a very exhausting and professional struggle for everyone", said Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

The exchange of prisoners was being carried out at a checkpoint near Horlivka, a city in the eastern Donetsk region.

On Tuesday, Zakharchenko said he had issued a pardon of prisoners.

The figures were significantly lower than previously declared, as dozens of prisoners - nearly all from the Ukrainian territory - have refused to move to the other side. "Today's exchange is not only a humanitarian act but also a helpful step in confidence-building".

Journalists, activists and bloggers who had been accused of spying or treason were among those released.

"Thank you for your perseverance, guys", Poroshenko said on Facebook.

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It's the first swap of prisoners between the rival sides of the Ukrainian civil conflict in 15 months.

Ukrainian forces and separatists backed by Russian Federation have fought for control of the country's eastern flank since 2014, in a bloody war that has killed more than 10,000 combatants and civilians.

The 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, envisioned a prisoner exchange, but the two sides argued over lists of prisoners and only a few dozen had been exchanged prior to Wednesday.

In a phone call in November, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, had urged the separatist leaders to exchange prisoners with the Ukrainian government.

Merkel and Macron emphasized that the prisoner exchange and a renewed commitment to a comprehensive ceasefire "should also serve to build up confidence between the parties to the conflict, also with a view to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements".

Hundreds of people turned out at Kiev airport late on Wednesday to welcome home the released prisoners, waving national flags, bouquets of flowers and shouting "Glory to Ukraine".



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