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Ukrainian forces and rebels exchange POWs as war grinds on

Ukrainian forces and rebels exchange POWs as war grinds on

A Ukrainian government official and separatist leaders agreed to exchange prisoners last week with mediation provided by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. One held a cat.

It is the first swap in 15 months.

On Tuesday, Zakharchenko said he had issued a pardon of prisoners.

Ukraine handed over 246 prisoners that it had in its custody in exchange for 74 prisoners who were being held by separatist forces.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised the Ukrainian prisoners held by the rebels for their endurance.

Ukraine was supposed to release 306 people, but dozens chose to stay in Ukraine or had been freed earlier, said Viktor Medvedchuk, who monitored the exchange on the Ukrainian side. Some were activists and bloggers who were charged with spying or treason.




"I was in captivity for two years", said historian Igor Kozlovskiy, 63, who was captured by Donetsk rebels on suspicion of storing weapons. "Thanks for your stamina, guys", he said on Facebook.

Merkel and Macron welcomed the prisoner exchange, saying 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".

Eastern Ukraine has been the site of clashes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia militias since 2014, when Ukraine's Moscow-aligned president was ousted by protesters in Kiev.In response, Russian Federation quickly annexed Crimea away from Ukraine, a step that most nations have refused to recognize as legitimate.

Hundreds of people turned out at Kiev airport late on Wednesday to welcome home the released prisoners, waving national flags, bouquets of flowers and shouting "Glory to Ukraine".

The exchange is part of the so-called "Minsk agreement", a settlement roadmap signed in 2015 between Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In a phone call in November, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, had urged the separatist leaders to exchange prisoners with the Ukrainian government.

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