Kyiv, Russia-Backed Separatists Exchange Captives In Eastern Ukraine

SERGEI BONDARENKO

Sixteen of them were held captive in the so-called "Luhansk People's Republic" ("LPR"), while 58 Ukrainians were handed over by the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" ("DPR").

But local news agencies said some of those agreed to be exchanged by Kiev refused to travel to the occupied territory, and only 246 people ultimately travelled east across the war's no man's land.

More people are expected to be exchanged in another location later Wednesday.

The prisoners, some of whom have been held captive for more than a year, arrived at a Ukrainian government checkpoint with their belongings. Although the Kremlin insists the Russian army is not in eastern Ukraine, worldwide observers say Russian soldiers and military hardware are involved in fighting in the region.

The swap was confirmed on Monday when the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, met with pro-Russia separatist leaders at Moscow's Danilovsky monastery.

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A representative for the Russian-separatists, Olga Kobtseva, thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the exchange.

The exact number of prisoners exchanged is uncertain. A ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect on 23 December was shattered within hours when a Ukrainian solider was killed.

Ukrainian forces and separatists backed by Russian Federation have fought for control of the country's eastern flank since 2014, in a bloody war that has killed more than 10,000 combatants and civilians.

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 President of Ukraine, Petred Poroshenko, who described as "sudden and provocative" Russian decision to withdraw its officers from joint centre, said last week that it would reinforce military contingent in east of country in face of threat of an escalation in Clashes with Russian. The Obama administration had consistently refused to approve Kiev's requests for United States lethal weaponry because it said the move risked provoking a unsafe escalation in the conflict.

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