Ukraine rivals to swap prisoners Sunday: separatists

Moscow (AFP) –


Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country have agreed to swap dozens of prisoners on Sunday, the self-declared rebel republic of Donetsk said.

Both sides had said earlier this month they would carry out a prisoner exchange by the end of the year, following high-profile peace talks in Paris aimed at de-escalating Europe's only active war.

"Kiev and the Donbass (a term used to refer to rebel-held eastern Ukraine) have reached an accord on an exchange of prisoners... this Sunday December 29," Donetsk government spokeswoman Daria Morozova said in a statement.

She said two separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk will get 87 prisoners, while 55 others will be handed over to Kiev, without giving details on the identity of those involved.

The prisoner exchange is expected to take place near the town of Gorlivka in the separatist-held Donetsk region.

Russian media reported that the operation will take place on the front line.

Ukrainian authorities refused to confirm or deny the exchange.

"We are not commenting on this," Olena Guitlianska, spokesman for the SBU, the Ukrainian security services, told AFP.

Officials at the Ukrainian presidency could not immediately be reached for comment.

The swap would come three months after Ukraine carried out a long-awaited exchange with Russia of 35 prisoners each.

More than 13,000 people have been killed since pro-Russia militias in eastern Ukraine launched a bid for independence in 2014 -- kicking off a conflict that deepened Russia's estrangement from the West.

- International pressure -

Details of Sunday's exchange were scarce, with officials saying that lists of prisoners were still being agreed.

OSCE Special Representative Martin Sajdik confirmed that preparations for the swap were under way.

At the Paris summit this month, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to implement a full ceasefire and proceed with a new withdrawal of forces from conflict zones by March 2020.

The latest swap also comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky held their first face-to-face talks and agreed measures to de-escalate the conflict.

The December 9 summit was the first of its kind in three years.

Since coming to power in May, comedian-turned-president Zelensky, 41, has sought to revive a peace process to end the separatist conflict.

The Kremlin has sent signals that it is ready to work with Zelensky, whom Putin has described as "likeable" and "sincere".

Ahead of the summit, Kiev and separatists completed a partial troop pullback.

French President Emmanuel Macron said at the time of the Paris meeting a new summit would be held in four months to take stock of progress on ending the conflict.

Countries have sought to revive accords signed in Minsk in 2015 that call for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Kiev's control over its borders, wider autonomy for Donetsk and Lugansk, and the holding of local elections.

But there was no sign of warmth between the Ukraine and Russian leaders in Paris and many doubt whether Putin genuinely wants to settle the conflict.

Speaking in Moscow this month, Putin said that if Kiev gets back control of the border in the east pro-Russian residents of separatist-held territories could be targeted.

Zelensky's peace plan has also been strongly criticised by war veterans and nationalists.

Various nationalist organisations even deployed their own troops to the frontline in an effort to prevent a troop pullback in line with peace agreements.

Critics say the proposals favour Russia but Zelensky has pledged not to betray Ukraine's interests.

Ties between Ukraine and Russia were shredded after a bloody uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014. Moscow went on to annex Crimea and support insurgents in eastern Ukraine.