Ukraine’s Zelenskiy gambles on Russia prisoner swap
Ukraine and Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine have swapped prisoners as part of a deal agreed this month at a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France (pictured).
Around 142 prisoners are expected to be exchanged near Horlivka in eastern Ukraine with 55 freed by the rebels and 87 by the Ukrainian forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s comedian turned politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy held their first face-to-face meeting in Paris on December 9 and agreed to wind down the only active European war.
But prospects for peace still face questions over allowing elections to give rebel-held regions more autonomy and how Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia in the occupied zones.
Other Russian-occupied enclaves like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were seized from Georgia, and Moldova’s Transnistria have remained in permanent limbo.
In December 2017, 233 rebels were exchanged for 73 Ukrainian captives.
In September, 24 sailors seized by Russia in the Kerch Strait off Crimea in November 2018 were released and, controversially, a suspect in the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 which killed 298 people was handed to Russia.
This week’s exchange provoked anger after Ukraine handed over five riot police, from the now-disbanded special Berkut police force, suspected of killing around 100 demonstrators during a pro-western uprising in 2014.
The inclusion of the riot police in the swap has raised fears in Ukraine that Zelenskiy is giving away too much to Putin.
The prosecutor general’s office in Kiev recently said the trial of the five riot police officers would continue without explaining how the suspects would attend court hearings.
In an open letter to Zelenskiy, the victims’ families said the release of the suspects could lead to protests.
Stanyslav Aseyev and Oleg Galazyuk, journalists who contributed to Ukraine’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service, were also freed by the insurgents.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014 has left more than 14,000 dead.
Ukrainian detainees handed over included civilians who said they had been held for several years after visiting relatives.
Volodymyr Danylchenko, 36, who said he had been held for three years, said: “I don’t understand what’s happened.” He said he was leaving his mother behind in Lugansk.
Another Ukrainian said she had been convicted of “state treason” and was sentenced to 12 years in jail after visiting her parents in Lugansk region.
The December 10 talks. Picture credit: Wikimedia