Ukraine and Russia-backed rebels exchange prisoners in bid to end five-year war

A Russia-backed separatist soldier escorts a group of separatist war prisoners after they were exchanged at a checkpoint near Horlivka in ea Credit: Alexei Alexandrov/AP

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine began exchanging prisoners on Sunday in a move aimed at ending their five-year-long war.

The move was part of an agreement brokered earlier this month at a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

A rebel government official and the Ukrainian president’s office confirmed that the swap was under way.

Ukrainian soldiers on patrol near Odradivka in eastern Ukraine during the prisoner exchange Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

In total, 142 prisoners were expected to be exchanged at a checkpoint near Horlivka in eastern Ukraine – 55 released by the rebels and 87 by Ukraine.

The last major prisoner swap between separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces took place in December 2017, with 233 rebels exchanged for 73 Ukrainians.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014 has killed more than 14,000 people.

The conflict began about two months after Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country amid massive protests in Kiev.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula soon followed.

Russia-backed war prisoners are taken by bus to the exchange near Odradivka, eastern Ukraine Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Hopes of an end to the conflict have risen since the spring election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has been more amenable to negotiations with Russia.

But prospects for peace are still troubled by questions over allowing local elections that would ensure the rebel regions more autonomy and about Ukraine regaining control of its border with Russia in the rebel areas.