A major prisoner swap between Kyiv and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine got underway on Sunday, the Ukrainian presidency announced.
“The process of releasing the detained persons has started at the Maïorské checkpoint in the Donetsk region,” the president’s office tweeted.
Pictures released by officials showed coaches from separatist territories were seen arriving on land guarded by armed Ukrainian soldiers near the village of Odradivka, in the area controlled by Kiev, some ten kilometres from the front line. Journalists did not have direct access to this site.
The identities and the exact number of people exchanged were not disclosed but it is thought to have involved more than 100 people.
The exchange marks a further de-escalation in Europe’s only current armed conflict, which broke out in 2014.
Unconfirmed Ukrainian media reports suggested that the separatists were releasing mostly Ukrainian soldiers along with some activists or journalists who have been imprisoned.
Kiev could hand over three men sentenced to life imprisonment for a murderous attack in Kharkiv in February 2015, as well as former riot police tried in Ukraine for their alleged involvement in the bloody repression of the demonstrations from Maidan Square in 2014.
Paris peace summit
The exchange comes following a peace summit in Paris in early December that marked the first meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The summit was one of the first tests for the comedian-turned president following his election last spring. Experts said that a prisoner swap could be possible after the summit.
The 2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine broke out shortly after Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea in a move widely viewed as illegal in the international community.
Agreements to end the fighting in the Donbas region have largely failed.
Kyiv and Moscow swapped prisoners in September including Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
At the time, Zelensky said the exchange was the first step to ending conflict in eastern Ukraine.