Ukrainian military and separatist representatives exchanged dozens of prisoners under the cover of darkness at a remote frontline location Saturday evening, kicking off a process intended to usher in peace to the conflict-ridden east, according to reports.
Reportedly, 139 Ukrainian troops and 52 rebels were exchanged, according to a separatist official overseeing the prisoner swap at a no man’s land location near the village of Zholobok, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Luhansk. After arriving at the location near Zholobok, the troops were made to line up and listen to a speech by a rebel representative, who ordered the men to leave the territory claimed by the separatist movements in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The soldiers then walked for around three kilometers (two miles) to a rendezvous point. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his Twitter account that he was informed the process had begun by the national security service. The peace agreement signed last week in Minsk foresees an exchange of all prisoners in the conflict. It is unclear how many are held in total on both sides, although the Donetsk separatists have said Ukraine is holding about 580 rebels as prisoners.
In related news, Ukraine has closed 23 checkpoints on the border with Russia as the Kremlin builds up forces close to the strategic port city of Mariupol, situated between Russia and Crimea in Donetsk Oblast. On February 20, Ukraine’s government issued a decree ordering the closure of one international, four interstate, and 18 local border crossing points in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv oblasts.
A total of 39 checkpoints will still operate on the border with Russia, the State Border Service said. Three are located in Chernihiv Oblast, 14 in Sumy Oblast, 15 in Kharkiv Oblast, six in Luhansk Oblast, and one in Kyiv Oblast. Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers had already suspended crossings at 14 border posts (six in Donetsk Oblast and eight in Luhansk Oblast) due to a direct threat to the lives of those attempting to cross.
At that stage, the border posts closed were Marynivka, Novoazovsk, Uspenka, Ilovaisk, Kvashyno, Donetsk, Dovzhansky, Chervona Mohyla, Izvaryne, Krasna Talivka, Yuhanivka, Herasymivka, Petrivka, and Luhansk. Oleksandr Turchynov, who heads the National Security and Defense Council, said that Russia is doing its best to prevent Ukraine securing its border with the country.
“All Russian-terrorist groups staying in the occupied territory understand that as soon as the border is closed they will not stand even for several weeks, so Russia is blocking the [border closure] decision-making in every possible way.”