Major Ukraine PoW swap completed
Ukrainian exchanged hundreds of captives yesterday (Wednesday) with Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country in the first major prisoner swap this year.
Journalists, activists and bloggers, who had been accused of spying or treason, were among those swapped.
More than 10,000 have died since the conflict started in 2014. The 2015 Minsk peace agreements included a prisoner swap programme, but distrust and ceasefire breakdowns prevented exchanges in the longest war in Europe since the Second World War.
A ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect on December 23 was scuppered within hours when a Ukrainian solider was killed.
In the first exchange since September 2016, Ukraine received 74 captives from Donbass rebels, said Ukrainian MP Iryna Lutsenko. Kiev had offered to release 306 detainees in exchange.
It was reported that some of those set to be exchanged refused to travel east to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and only 246 prisoners were handed over.
Two Ukrainians, a man and a woman; also chose to stay on the rebel side.
“I was in captivity for two years,” said historian Igor Kozlovskiy, 63, who was captured by Donetsk insurgents on suspicion of storing weapons. “Still a lot of prisoners remain [in Donetsk].”
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill helped arrange the talks on the prisoner exchange, and three Russian priests were present.
The swap offers some optimism for hopes of progress on a workable peace deal despite a recent intensification of the conflict.
“There is good news of which we can say already. The exchange process is over,” Lutsenko posted on Facebook.
The US last week agreed to supply weapons to Ukraine, which has long demanded anti-tank missiles and other Nato equipment. Hardware reportedly included Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Russia warned that US involvement could escalate the fighting.
“Nothing is more important than to return our people home,” Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko told the relatives of the prisoners. “I hope it will be a symbol of our struggle and victory. It was a very exhausting and professional struggle for everyone.”
Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s representative in a Ukraine-Russia negotiation group facilitated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said further swaps could take place.
“This is an important event above all for the people returning home, who will celebrate the new year together with their relatives and loved ones,” Gryzlov said. “This is the first stage of the exchange in the all-for-all format.”
The conflict in Ukraine is Europe’s longest running war since 1945. Picture credit: Wikimedia