Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine started a full prisoner swap on Sunday, driving all remaining detainees in the five-year conflict to a handover point and starting to unload them.
The swap, at a checkpoint near the industrial town of Horlivka in the Donetsk region, was expected to see Ukraine hand over 87 separatists in exchange for 55 pro-government Ukrainians, with armed troops from both sides looking on.
Ukrainian men and women dressed in civilian clothing got off a bus after being brought to the rendez-vous point by separatist forces and were then herded into a nearby tent.
“The first 25 freed Ukrainians soon will be home,” Ukraine’s presidential office said.
The exchange, scheduled to be completed later on Sunday, is likely to be hailed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as proof he is making good on a promise to bring captured Ukrainians home.
But some in Ukraine are unhappy that riot police accused of opening fire on protesters against the country’s Russia-friendly then-president Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 are among those expected to be handed over.
And though the swap will help build confidence between the two sides who are wrangling over how to implement a 2014 peace deal, serious disagreements remain and full normalisation is a long way off.
“Today’s prisoner exchange in Donbass will bring relief to the persons involved and their families, but it will not bring the (peace) settlement any closer,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, wrote on social media.
“The… terms remain anathema in Kiev, and this won’t change. The conflict is much more likely to become frozen than resolved.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy prepared the ground for the exchange at a summit in Paris earlier this month.
Kiev’s forces have been battling separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives. Sporadic fighting continues despite a ceasefire agreement.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and its subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
There have been several prisoner exchanges between Kiev and the separatists. In the last swap, conducted in December 2017, Ukraine handed over about 300 captives in exchange for around 70 people.
Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory in April promising to end the conflict.
Widely criticized domestically for his plan to grant special status to Donbass to help end the five-year conflict, Zelenskiy’s latest actions have given rise to cautious optimism in some quarters.
In September, after a carefully negotiated rapprochement, Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners in a move that brought Western praise.
Relations between the two countries have shown signs of improvement in other areas too, including in the gas sector where Kiev and Moscow are discussing a new transit contract.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of using gas supplies to put pressure on it, but last week the parties managed to agree on the main points of a new deal.