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Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels begin first prisoner exchange of the year

AFP archive | Ukrainian army tanks

Ukrainian authorities and separatist rebels began a prisoner exchange in the country's east Wednesday, the first major trade of captives from their conflict this year.

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Separatists from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic bused 16 prisoners to a government-controlled area near the no-man's land on the front, while Ukrainian government representatives delivered 99 people.

The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and government troops has killed more than 10,000 since 2014. A truce signed in 2015 stipulated an exchange of all prisoners, but both sides are believed to have kept dozens, if not hundreds, of captives to use as bargaining tools.

Separatist leaders and a Ukrainian government representative agreed to the exchange last week, with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church acting as mediator. Ukraine is supposed to release 306 people and the separatists 74.

Many of the captives are not combatants; some are activists and bloggers who were charged with spying or treason.

Both sides spent days hammering out the lists of prisoners. However, three people who were requested for the swap refused to go to rebel-controlled territories.

The prisoners, some of whom have been held captive for more than a year, arrived at a Ukrainian government checkpoint with their belongings. One man was holding a cat.

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

(AP)

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