European leaders have praised a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between the government in Kiev and Russia-backed separatists that enabled hundreds of former captives to return to their homes for the New Year holiday.
In the biggest exchange of prisoners since the war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014, the Ukrainian side swapped 306 imprisoned militants, who were captured in Ukrainian-controlled territory, for 74 Ukrainian citizens, including prisoners of war (POW), that were held hostage in occupied Donbas, at the Maiorske crossing checkpoint, on the contact line between the warring parties near the pro-Russian militant-occupied town of Horlivka in Donetsk region.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the exchange as an “important humanitarian gesture before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas (on 7 January).”
The European leaders and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which supervised the exchange, urged the two sides to use momentum from the swap to work toward a broader peace in the region.
The “exchange is not only a humanitarian act, but also a helpful step in confidence-building,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissi, the organization’s chairman.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko greeted the prisoners freed by the separatists in the town of Horlivka near the front lines of the conflict and praised their endurance.
“I’m grateful to all those who remained loyal to Ukraine in those unbearable conditions,” Poroshenko said. “They have shown their adherence to the principles of freedom and independence.”
Implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement has been slow and several other aspects of the deal appear far from being fulfilled. Western officials and rights groups have voiced concern about flare-ups in recent weeks, with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini saying the humanitarian and security situation had “deteriorated abruptly” of late.