Ukraine, pro-Russia separatists complete prisoner swap

Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists finish controversial exchange of 200 prisoners.

A Ukrainian war prisoner embraces his mother after been released after a prisoner exchange, near Odradivka, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in eastern
A Ukrainian war prisoner embraces his mother after being released following a prisoner exchange, near Odradivka, eastern Ukraine [Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo]

Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have completed a full prisoner swap, exchanging all remaining detainees of the five-year conflict, the Ukrainian presidency has said.

“The mutual release of the detainees has ended,” the presidential office in Kyiv said on Sunday in a statement on Facebook.

It said that 76 former pro-government prisoners had returned home, while separatist officials said the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics took in a total of 124 people.

The exchange comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy held their first face-to-face talks in Paris on December 9 and agreed on some measures to de-escalate Europe‘s only active war.

The summit, mediated by the leaders of France and Germany, was the first of its kind in three years.

Reporting from Moscow, Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Godfroid said Zelenskyy faced criticism in Ukraine “from the very start” when he openly showed his willingness to hold talks with Putin. 

“Critics say he might have compromised too much,” Godfroid said. “On the other hand … he did win the elections by promising to end this conflict”. 

Godfroid said the swap took place at the checkpoint of Mayorsk, near the town of Horlivka, a demarcation line between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists.

Men are seen inside a bus before prisoner of war exchange in Donetsk region
Men are seen inside a bus for pro-Russian rebels [Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters]

Some in Ukraine are unhappy that riot police accused of opening fire on protesters against the country’s Russia-friendly then-President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 are among those who were handed over.

In an open letter to Zelenskyy this week, the victims’ families warned the release of the suspects could lead to a “wave of protests”.

“We would like to inform you that these people are neither participants nor victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” they said on Facebook. 

The swap comes three months after Ukraine carried out a long-awaited exchange with Russia of 35 prisoners each. As part of that exchange, Russia released filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and 24 Ukrainian sailors.

More than 13,000 people have been killed since pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine launched a bid for independence in 2014.

Olexiy Haran, a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, told Al Jazeera that some Ukrainians continue to be held in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

“It’s definitely good that some Ukrainian prisoners are returning home,” Haran told Al Jazeera from Kyiv. “And I’m suggesting some … because many Ukrainian prisoners are still held … in Russian occupied Crimea,” he said.

Haran added that the conflict in east Ukraine is considered by locals as a “war between Ukraine and Russia”, as opposed to one involving Ukraine and “so-called separatists”.

“It’s the Russian position which prevents from solving the conflict,” Haran said.

Despite the prisoner swap, he said, there is “still no ceasefire … And the shelling of Ukrainian territories is continued by Russia.”

Peace efforts

Since coming to power in May, comedian-turned-President Zelenskyy, 41, has sought to revive a peace process to end the conflict.

At the Paris summit, the leaders sought to revive accords signed in Minsk in 2015 that call for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Kyiv’s control over its borders, wider autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk, and the holding of local elections.

A view shows buses for pro-Russian rebels before prisoner of war exchange in Donetsk region
Buses for pro-Russian rebels are escorted by the Ukrainian armed forces and police [Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters]

The Kremlin has sent signals that it is ready to work with Zelenskyy, whom Putin has described as “likeable”.

But there was no sign of warmth between the Ukrainian and Russian leaders in Paris and many doubt whether Putin genuinely wants to settle the conflict.

Putin said this month that if Kyiv gets back control of the border in the east, residents of separatist-held territories could be targeted.

“Well, I can imagine what will begin. There will be Srebrenica there, that’s all,” Putin said, referring to the 1995 massacre during the Bosnian war.

He claimed that Zelenskyy was not powerful enough to rein in Ukrainian nationalists.

Zelenskyy’s peace plan has been strongly criticised by war veterans and nationalists in recent months.

Ties between Ukraine and Russia were shredded after the 2014 bloody uprising overthrew a Kremlin-backed government. Moscow went on to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies