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Ukraine, Pro-Russia Rebels Begin Prisoner Exchange
30 December 2017, 12:59 | Marta Robbins
Ukraine, separatist rebels swap more than 300 prisoners ahead of New Year
The last prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels took place in September past year, when two pro-Kiev detainees were swapped for four separatist fighters at a checkpoint outside the rebel-held city of Lugansk. Twenty people who had been held in Ukrainian government custody refused to return to pro-Russia breakaway regions, Kiev said.
UkrainianPresident Petro Poroshenko praised the Ukrainianprisoners held by the rebels for their endurance.
Buses and other vehicles carrying the prisoners assembled at the Mayorsk checkpoint near the city of Horlivka in Donetsk for the swap.
The exact number of prisoners returned to rebel-held territory is unclear.
"I'm out of hell, I have survived", said Yevhen Chudentsov, who served with one of Ukraine's volunteer battalions in the east and was taken prisoner by the rebels in February 2015. Ukraine had pledged to release 306 people in exchange.
Journalists, activists and bloggers who had been accused of spying or treason were among those released.
"Thank you for your perseverance, guys", Poroshenko said on Facebook.
Merkel and Macron said in a joint statement that they "encourage the parties to the conflict also to enable the exchange of the remaining prisoners, grant the International Committee of the Red Cross full access and support the ICRC's search for missing people".
Ukrainian forces and separatists backed by Russian Federation have fought for control of the country's eastern flank since 2014, in a bloody war that has killed more than 10,000 combatants and civilians.
Family and friends of the freed Ukrainianprisoners gathered at Kiev's Borispol airport where the former captives were expected to arrive on Wednesday evening.
The prisoner exchange, which involved officials on both sides working around the clock for days to agree a list of names and legal framework for the swap, offers some optimism for hopes of progress on a workable peace deal.
"The UK welcomes the exchange of over 300 prisoners between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine".
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