Ukrainian citizens are guarded by Russia-backed separatist fighters during a prisoner swap near Mayorsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 29, 2019.
Ukrainian citizens are guarded by Russia-backed separatist fighters during a prisoner swap near Mayorsk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Dec. 29, 2019.

Criticism mounted in Kyiv Monday over a controversial prisoner swap with Russian-backed separatists, as it emerged that among the captives exchanged by Ukraine were five riot policemen accused of killing protesters during the 2014 Maidan uprising.

The policemen were members of a Berkut militia unit that is now disbanded.

Relatives of those killed during the uprising had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to include the policemen in the exchange. After the handover, which took place Sunday, the Ukrainian leader defended his decision, saying it was necessary in order for Ukraine to secure the return of several of its reconnaissance soldiers.

A total of 200 captives were exchanged between the two warring sides.

“It was a hard decision. It was a political decision,” Zelenskiy told reporters at Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, as he met 76 freed Ukrainians.  

His remarks failed to assuage the relatives of protesters who were killed in 2014.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a ceremony to welcome Ukrainian citizens exchanged in a prisoner swap, at Boryspil International Airport, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 29, 2019.

As the exchange began, 200 people protested at a detention center in the capital, Kyiv, where three of the riot police were held.

“This country has no future,” Volodymyr Golodnyuk, the father of a 19-year-old protester killed in the uprising, said on Facebook. In an open letter to Zelenskiy, the victims' families warned the release of the suspects could lead to a “wave of protests.”

Nearly two dozen civil society groups were also critical of the policemen's release, issuing a joint statement warning that “the decision at the request of the Kremlin undermines the values of the rule of law, justice and dignity, and can divide society by sowing hatred between different groups of Ukrainians.”

Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who Russia handed over to Ukraine in a September exchange, criticized Sunday’s swap. He said Kyiv was giving up “real murderers” while other Ukrainians remained in captivity in Russia and rebel territory. “All that Ukrainians fought for is turning to ash,” Sentsov said.

About 100 demonstrators were killed during the monthslong 2014 revolution, which ended in the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

FILE - A man places flowers at a monument to the so-called "Heavenly Hundred," anti-government protesters killed during Ukraine's 2014 Maidan revolution, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nov. 21, 2019.

The Berkut was among militias accused of the worst violence. Members of the Russian-trained Alfa Team have also been accused of involvement in the killings. Many of the slain protesters died from precise shots to the head or neck, while others were gunned down in closer quarters by less expert shooters armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

A dozen Ukrainian soldiers were among those released by pro-Russian separatists.  They had been captured during skirmishes in the conflict, which started in 2014, and has so far claimed around 14,000 lives, making it the bloodiest war in Europe since the 1990s.

In order to gain the release of 76 captives — some of them pro-Kyiv activists and bloggers — Ukraine had to free 124 prisoners it was holding. Two contributors to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, VOA’s sister broadcaster, were also released.  

This is the second prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia this year.

The first swap in September of 70 captives prompted hopes that Moscow and Kyiv were ready for serious talks to end the more than five-year war in the Donbas region. That exchange included the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in a naval clash.

When Zelenskiy was elected in April, he pledged to move quickly to engineer the release of Ukrainians held captive by Russian-backed forces. A former TV comedian, Zelenskiy won a landslide electoral victory on a promise to end the war.

Relatives of Ukrainian citizens, who were exchanged during a prisoner swap, surround an aircraft during a welcoming ceremony at Boryspil International Airport, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 29, 2019.

Sunday’s prisoner swap was brokered during peace talks this month between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany amid renewed efforts to reach a cease-fire.

The exchange was made at a checkpoint on the front line of the conflict, overseen by armed troops from both sides.

Live footage streamed by Ukraine’s presidential office showed buses with prisoners parked at a crossing point. The office of Ukraine’s president tweeted, “The mutual release of detained persons is completed ...76 of ours are safe in Ukraine-controlled territory ... details later.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the Paris talks, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the prisoner exchange. In a joint statement, they said "further work will still be necessary to allow the exchange of all prisoners linked to the conflict.”

In a statement published on Twitter, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv also welcomed the “return of liberated captives from Russian-controlled Donbas.” It added, “Recognizing that Russia’s ongoing aggression confronts Ukraine’s leadership with difficult choices, we stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian partners and the many Ukrainians who remain in captivity in Russia and Crimea.”

This second prisoner swap is also viewed as an encouraging sign that the conflict can be brought to a peaceful conclusion. But seasoned analysts are skeptical, arguing that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to agree to a deal.

Zelenskiy's peace strategy has been strongly criticized by Ukrainian war veterans and nationalists, but opinion polls suggest it still has strong backing by many Ukrainians.

“Today’s prisoner exchange in Donbass will bring relief to the persons involved and their families, but it will not bring the settlement any closer,” tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “The conflict is much more likely to become frozen than resolved.”