Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed separatist rebels conducted a massive prisoner exchange Wednesday, the largest such trade of captives since the start of the conflict and a sign of visible progress in the implementation of a 2015 peace deal.
Separatists from the self-proclaimed separatist republics in Luhansk and Donetsk regions handed over 74 prisoners, and Ukrainian authorities delivered 233.
Larisa Sargan, a spokeswoman for the country's prosecutor general's office, said on Facebook that one of the 74 prisoners released by the separatists said she would stay in Donetsk.
The prisoners, some of whom had been held for more than a year, were exchanged in the town of Horlivka and the village of Zaitseve with their belongings. One held a cat.
“I'm out of hell, I have survived,” said Yevhen Chudentsov, who served with one of Ukraine's volunteer battalions in the east and was taken prisoner by the rebels in February 2015.
Chudentsov said he faced threats and beatings in custody, and his front teeth were knocked out. He was initially sentenced to capital punishment, which was later changed to 30 years in prison. He said after his release in Horlivka that he would join the Ukrainian military again.
The exchange was supervised by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic security and rights group that has deployed monitors to eastern Ukraine.
The OSCE welcomed the swap and urged the two sides to build on the momentum from it.
“Allowing such a significant number of people, who have been held on both sides, to return home before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas is a very welcome development,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, the OSCE chairman. “Today's exchange is not only a humanitarian act but also a helpful step in confidence-building.”
Ukraine was supposed to release 306 people, but dozens chose to stay in Ukraine or had been freed earlier, said Viktor Medvedchuk, who monitored the exchange on the Ukrainian side.
Many of the captives are not combatants; some were activists and bloggers who were charged with spying or treason.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised the Ukrainian prisoners held by the rebels for their endurance.
“Thank you for your perseverance, guys,” Poroshenko said on Facebook.
The Ukrainian leader greeted the prisoners who were released by the separatists in the town of Kramatorsk, hailing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron for helping organize the swap.
“We are stronger, we shall win!” Poroshenko said.
Merkel and Macron welcomed the prisoner exchange, saying in a joint statement that they “encourage the parties to the conflict also to enable the exchange of the remaining prisoners, grant the International Committee of the Red Cross full access and support the ICRC's search for missing people.”
The simmering conflict between the separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.
The 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, envisioned a prisoner exchange, but the two sides argued over lists of prisoners and only a few dozen had been exchanged prior to Wednesday.
Separatist leaders and a Ukrainian government representative finally agreed to the exchange last week, with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church acting as mediator.
Merkel and Macron emphasized that the prisoner exchange and a recommitment to a comprehensive cease-fire “should also serve to build up confidence between the parties to the conflict, also with a view to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.”