Ukraine, Russia-backed rebels swap prisoners in latest sign of peace efforts

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By Yuliya Talmazan  with NBC News World News
Ukrainian servicemen stand guard by buses for pro-Russian rebels before a prisoner exchange on Sunday.   -  Copyright  YEVGEN HONCHARENKO

A prisoner swap between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces in the country's east was underway Sunday in the latest sign of efforts to ease tensions between the two warring sides.

The exchange was agreed upon by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin during peace talks in Paris earlier this month.

The negotiations did not result in a peace deal to end the deadly five-year military conflict, but the two parties committed to further talks and a prisoner swap before the year is out.

"There must be an exchange [of captives] tomorrow. We look forward to this," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying by his press office on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, Zelenskiy tweeted that the process was underway.

Ukrainian war prisoners escorted by Russia-backed separatist soldiers walk to be exchanged near the checkpoint Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday.
Ukrainian war prisoners escorted by Russia-backed separatist soldiers walk to be exchanged near the checkpoint Horlivka, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday.Alexei Alexandrov

Human Rights Commissioner for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said Saturday Kyiv was expected to hand over 87 people while their side would free 55 under the "all identified for all identified" formula.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian ombudswoman for human rights Lyudmila Denisova said Sunday that 80 Ukrainians are expected to be freed.

Earlier this week, Ukrainian media reported that a court in Odessa released 11 people accused of terrorism in preparation for the exchange. Four others were released from jail in Kharkiv on Saturday.

The last major prisoner swap between separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces took place in December 2017, with 233 rebels exchanged for 73 Ukrainians.

Sunday's swap comes several months after a direct prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September. That saw 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia in a naval confrontation in late 2018 freed, among others.

The swap was considered a major victory for Zelenskiy, who made the return of the sailors one of his election promises.

The Ukrainian leader, who was a comedian without any political experience before he took office earlier this year, was thrust into the international spotlight following a phone conversation with President Donald Trump in July.

The call has become the focal point of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. that will see Trump face a Senate trial after being impeached by the House earlier this month.

The saga has dominated Washington politics, and been a distraction for Zelenskiy as he juggles peace negotiations with efforts to revive the country's struggling economy and tackle rampant corruption.

Eastern Ukraine has been ravaged by years of war between government forces and separatists backed by Russia, sparked in the aftermath of the 2014 mass protests in Kyiv.

The talks in Paris earlier this month renewed hopes for a resolution to the conflict, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

The United States has backed Ukraine throughout the conflict, fearing Putin's efforts to extend Moscow's geopolitical influence.

It has also heavily sanctioned Russia for its military intervention andthe annexation of Crimea.

Trump's decision to put a temporary hold on U.S. military aid, a central issue in the impeachment process, has raised concerns it could undermine Ukraine's efforts to contain Russian aggression.


Zelenskiy campaigned on ending the conflict, which is ongoing despite a ceasefire signed in 2015. He has taken a number of steps toward peace since coming into power, culminating in his face-to-face talks with Putin in Paris.

He has faced some opposition at home for what some have dubbed a "capitulation" to Russia. However, a recent poll showed 75 percent of Ukrainians support his talks with Putin to resolve the conflict.