Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels exchange prisoners

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels exchanged 34 prisoners Thursday in the latest trade aimed at creating conditions that could lead to the end of the six-year war in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian president’s office said.

Ukraine took back 20 of its citizens in the swap with the two separatist entities in the rebel-controlled east, according to a statement from the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Fourteen rebels were released in exchange.

It was the third prisoner exchange since Zelenskiy was elected in a landslide last year on promises of ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014 and aggravated tensions between Russia and the West.

“All of this is being done for Ukrainians, who we must rescue from the hell of captivity,” Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, said. “We’re bringing back all Ukrainians (held captive by the rebels). With no exceptions. This is what strong countries that value their citizens do.”

Prisoner exchanges were part of an agreement brokered last year at a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The aim is to take confidence-building steps toward talks to end the war.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the prisoner exchange and urged all parties “to take further measures in this spirit” in order to enable progress in implementing the 2015 Minsk peace deal, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“He hopes that this important humanitarian action in advance of Orthodox Easter will serve as a positive step towards more progress, including a permanent ceasefire, in line with his global appeal, as well as further disengagement of forces and unimpeded humanitarian access across the contact line,” Dujarric said.

The last major prisoner swap between separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces took place in December, when the two sides exchanged 124 rebels for 76 Ukrainians.

Ukraine continues to negotiate for the return of prisoners held in Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, according to Zelenskiy’s office. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that Ukraine and most other nations consider illegal.