Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists have begun a prisoner exchange in eastern Ukraine, according to reports Wednesday from multiple Russian news outlets.
The negotiated swap is the first in 14 months and is seen as a key part of implementing the Minsk agreements, a framework for peace intended to bring about a ceasefire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russian state media reported Monday that Ukraine had agreed to release 306 prisoners in exchange for 74 being held by separatists.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with relatives of the hostages on Tuesday night, according to a statement from his office. “Nothing is more important than to return our people home,” he said.
Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been mired in conflict since separatists declared their independence from Kiev in spring 2014, shortly after Russia’s controversial annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
The Minsk agreements, which have never been fully implemented, were brokered in early 2015 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.
The peace protocol called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine, as well as the release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held prisoners, dialogue on new local elections and the securing of Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
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Martin Sajdik, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, welcomed the exchange, saying it had long been awaited by the prisoners and their families.
“This is a deeply humanitarian gesture, even more so on the occasion of Christmas and New Year,” he said in a statement on Tuesday, before the exchange began. “I call upon the sides to provide conditions of dignity and respect for each of the persons to be exchanged.”
OSCE observers have been monitoring the situation in Ukraine since 2014. The organization on Friday hailed what it said was a renewed commitment to the ceasefire plan, which followed a recent increase in clashes between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists.
“If underpinned by withdrawal of weapons and disengagement and made in good faith, this recommitment to the ceasefire holds the promise of a more peaceful new year for the people of eastern Ukraine,” said Ertugrul Apakan, who heads the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine.
On Saturday, the US State Department said it would provide lethal anti-tank weapons to Ukraine to help its forces fight Russian-backed separatists. The Trump administration had already announced it would permit sales of some small arms to Ukraine from US manufacturers.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the US decision to supply Ukraine with anti-tank weapons meant the United States “is clearly pushing [Ukraine] to new bloodshed.”