The Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces held a prisoner swap in the country’s war-ravaged east 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 exchange before the year is out.
Ukraine said 76 of its prisoners were returned, while media reports suggested Kyiv released 123 prisoners to the rebels.
SBU, Ukraine’s security service, said after the swap that 12 of those returned were servicemen, while the other 64 were civilians.
“This exchange is proof of how important it is for Ukraine’s president to protect every Ukrainian who is in difficult circumstances because of Russian aggression,” said SBU chief Ivan Bakanov in a statement.
Armed troops from both sides looked on as buses arrived at the swap site Sunday morning, a checkpoint near the industrial town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region.
Photos shared in Ukrainian media showed prisoners being loaded on and off buses, with some being greeted by their loved ones.
Others were handed hot drinks and slices of cake to celebrate their release.
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The last major prisoner exchange 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 and the annexation of Crimea.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv welcomed the prisoner swap.
“Recognizing that Russia’s ongoing aggression confronts Ukraine’s leadership with difficult choices, we stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian partners and the many Ukrainians who remain in captivity in Russia and Crimean,” the embassy said in a statement.
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.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed.