Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian separatists on Wednesday carried out the largest exchange of prisoners since the conflict began nearly four years ago.
In total, the separatists handed over some 70 Ukrainian prisoners held by the two self-proclaimed republics in the eastern Donbas region, in exchange for around 250 people detained by the Ukrainian authorities.
The operation, which was the first exchange of prisoners for 15 months between the two camps, took place on the front line near the town of Gorlovka, about forty kilometers northeast of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
The exchange was agreed to after lengthy negotiations involving Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. The release of the prisoners is a key component of the Minsk peace accords signed in February 2015 to end the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists that has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people since April 2014.
According to reports the original plan was for 306 prisoners to be returned to rebel-held territory, but after some refused to go, around 250 people were transferred. Speaking to the BBC, Miladin Bogetic, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, said that « some [of the prisoners] have already been released and the charges against them have been cleared by the Ukrainian authorities [so they] they prefer to stay in the government-controlled side. »
The prisoner swap took place against a backdrop of increased unrest in the region with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe saying last week that it recorded 16,000 ceasefire violations between Dec. 11 and Dec. 17, a 35 percent increase on the week before.
“We note with concern a sharp deterioration in the security situation with ceasefire violations reaching levels not recorded since February this year,” chief monitor Ertugrul Apakan said in a statement.