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Ukraine, rebels to swap hundreds of prisoners in push for pax

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27 December 2014

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels are completing a swap of hundreds of prisoners today as part of a new push for peace that came despite Kiev's decision to cut off key transport links to breakaway Crimea.

The exchange began on Friday in a dark and isolated stretch of a road north of the devastated rebel stronghold of Donetsk, as negotiators from both sides held video talks on Skype aimed at reviving stalled negotiations.

The swap involves a total of 222 guerrillas and 145 Ukrainian troops. A final five were due to be handed to Ukraine today from the neighbouring separatist province of Lugansk, according to a rebel spokeswoman.

Talks mediated by European and Russian envoys in the Belarus capital Minsk on Wednesday had been supposed to pave the way for a final round and the signing of a comprehensive peace accord.

But Wednesday's acrimonious session broke up after five hours, with a deal reached on only the least contentious of four agenda points: the prisoner swap.

And Ukraine's suspension on Friday of all bus and rail services to Crimea - a decision made citing security concerns that effectively severed the peninsula of 2.3 million from the mainland - added to the hostile tenor of the negotiations.

The video conferences, set to continue today, have so far failed to produce a new date for direct talks.

The prisoner handover now stands out as a rare example of cooperation between the two bitter enemies.

Some of the captives expressed surprise and joy at having the chance to go home in time for New Year's Eve - the most cherished of all the holidays celebrated in once-communist Eastern Europe.

The two warring sides lined up the prisoners some 100 metres apart in the no-man's land between their frontlines, with heavily-armed soldiers and rebels fidgeting nervously in the dark with their automatic rifles.





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