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Ukraine, pro-Russians agree on major prisoner exchange for Dec. 27

Representatives of the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia forces have agreed on a major prisoner exchange following a long-standing conflict in Ukraine’s volatile east.

Representatives from the two sides made the announcement in a joint televised statement on Monday, saying they would exchange prisoners on December 27.

Kiev representative Viktor Medvedchuk said Ukraine was ready to release 306 prisoners and was hoping for pro-Russian forces to release 74 soldiers on Wednesday.

Iryna Herashchenko, first deputy speaker of parliament in Ukraine, confirmed the report and wrote on her Facebook page that “seventy-four Ukrainians will be released on December 27. We will exchange them for 306 people.”

Donetsk News Agency also quoted regional pro-Russia leader Alexander Zakharchenko as saying, “We have agreed upon all the conditions, and on December 27, the exchange will be carried out under the 306-for-74 formula.”

The parties agreed last week to carry out the exchange of the detained persons before the New Year and Christmas holidays. The deal was mediated by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

The government in Kiev had earlier claimed that pro-Russia forces were holding at least 162 Ukrainian servicemen and civilians in captivity, while the other side had estimated that the government was holding 309 of their supporters.

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares ammunition for fighting with pro-Russia forces in Avdiivka in Donetsk region on March 30, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The prisoner swap is a key part of the Minsk ceasefire agreement designed to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine and if implemented, it will be the first exchange of hostages between the rival sides after 14 months.

The armed conflict erupted in Ukraine following the overthrow of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and intensified after people in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea voted for reunification with the Russian Federation in a referendum in March 2014.

The West brands the reunification as annexation of the territory by Russia. The US and its allies in Europe also accuse the Kremlin of having a major hand in the crisis in eastern Ukraine, an allegation denied by Moscow.

The pro-Russians have turned the two regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in the east — collectively known as the Donbass — into self-proclaimed republics. The crisis has left over 10,000 people dead and more than a million others displaced, according to the United Nations.

In September 2014, the government in Kiev and the pro-Russia forces signed a ceasefire agreement in the Belarusian capital city of Minsk in a bid to halt the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

The warring sides also inked another truce deal, dubbed Minsk II, in February 2015 under the supervision of Russia, Germany, and France.

Since then, however, sporadic fighting has occurred, with the parties blaming each other for initiating the violations.

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