Ukraine and rebels begin largest prisoner swap

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First Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Iryna Herashchenko embraces a prisoner of war (POW) from the Ukrainian armed forces during the exchange of captives in Horlivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017. Reuters

The swap on the eve of the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays was agreed, following negotiations involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s leader Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels on Wednesday began to exchange more than 300 prisoners in the war-torn east of the country, the largest such swap since the insurgency broke out in 2014.

The swap between the Kiev army and rebels from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics took place at a checkpoint close to the town of Gorlivka, 40 kilometres northeast of the rebels’ stronghold of Donetsk.

The Russian-backed eastern militia was handing over to Kiev some 70 prisoners.

The Ukrainian side for its part was releasing some 300 rebels and their supporters.

The swap on the eve of the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays was agreed following negotiations involving Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s leader Petro Poroshenko.

“President Poroshenko personally coordinated all the work of all our relevant departments,” lawmaker Iryna Gerashchenko, one of Ukraine’s peace negotiators, said before the exchange.

The prisoner exchange is in line with the so-called Minsk agreements brokered by Germany and France in 2015.

The last prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels took place in September 2016 when two pro-Kiev detainees were exchanged for four separatist fighters.

What happened?

The war in the east of the former Soviet republic broke out in April 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea the previous month.

The conflict has already claimed more than 10,000 lives.

A series of truce deals has helped lower the level of violence but not fully ended the bloodshed.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms across the border.

Moscow has denied the claims.

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