Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels begin prisoner exchange

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels begin prisoner exchange

Ukraine’s government and Russian-backed eastern separatist forces began a prisoner exchange Sunday following a deal reached at a summit between Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders, according to The Associated Press.

While the total number of prisoners exchanged was not immediately clear, authorities said they expected the exchange would involve 55 people released by the rebels and 87 by Ukraine, according to the AP.

Prisoners released by the Ukrainian side will include five former officers in the defunct Berkut police force, who were charged in the deaths of protesters in Kyiv in 2014, the year the nation’s ongoing civil war began.

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The exchange marks the first major prisoner swap between Ukrainian and rebel forces in two years, according to the AP. Seventy-three Ukrainians and 233 rebels were released in the last exchange. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, although the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine this year renewed hopes of fruitful negotiations with Russia.

“We welcome today’s return of liberated captives from Russia-controlled Donbas, as agreed at the December 9 Normandy Summit,” the U.S. embassy in Kyiv said in a statement. “Recognizing that Russia’s ongoing aggression confronts Ukraine’s leadership with difficult choices, we stand in solidarity with out Ukrainian partners and the many Ukrainians who remain in captivity in Russia and Crimea.”

The conflict began after protests in Kyiv forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee, with Russia annexing the Crimean Peninsula shortly thereafter.