The Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels reportedly began a prisoner exchange near the city of Donetsk today, eventually swapping nearly 400 prisoners total by nightfall in Ukraine's separatist region.
More than 220 people in government hands were reportedly set to be traded for 150 soldiers held by the rebels, with the captives from both sides driven by bus to a location north of the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk for the exchange. Media reports from earlier in the day were conflicting. In the afternoon, Russian news agency Interfax said the exchange had been completed, while an AFP correspondent on the ground reported that the first set of 30 detainees had been handed over, with the rest of the 380 prisoners set to be swapped by Friday evening.
Video broadcast on a state television channel in Russia showed footage of Ukrainian detainees being loaded onto buses in Donetsk and taken to the site of the prisoner swap — the biggest since fighting began between separatists and the government earlier this year — the Associated Press reported.
Russia's Itar-Tass and RIA Novasti news agencies each reported the swap ended just after 8pm on Friday."There were no violations during the exchange and all services worked in coordination," said Darya Morozova, human rights ombudswoman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, according to Itar-Tass.
The exchange was one of four tenants discussed in peace talks being held in Minsk this week between the government and rebel leaders — the only agreement reached before the negotiations stalled on Friday.
Stirring tensions just one day before the discussions kicked off in the Belarusian city, Ukraine's parliament voted to give up its non-aligned status, potentially signaling a move in the direction of NATO membership. The talks, brokered by Russia and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), began on Wednesday, but by Friday some appeared to be heading home from Belarus with little hope that an agreement would be reached, Al Jazeera reported. Officials in Minsk reportedly canceled meetings planned for Friday, where many had hoped a final peace agreement would be inked.
The aim of the discussions was to bolster previous agreements and ceasefires made this fall as the bloody eight-month long conflict continues in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United Nations estimates that at least 4,700 people have died — although the UN itself has indicated these figures may be lower than reality.
Officials told theWall Street Journalthat a future date had not been set to resume talks.
While peace discussions faltered in Belarus, the Ukrainian government reportedly turned off public utilities like electricity, as well as train and bus services, in Crimea — which was annexed from Ukraine by Russia after a popular vote in the peninsula in March.
According to theWSJ, officials from the state-owned corporation Ukrzaliznytsia expressed safety concerns as the reason for the cutting its cargo train services in Crimea, saying the move was "to ensure the safety of passengers."
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