DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Pro-Russian rebels said they will swap prisoners with the Ukrainian side Saturday as part of a battered truce that the West hopes will cool a deadly conflict that has poisoned relations with Moscow.
“Today (Saturday) there will be an exchange between us and the Ukrainian side,” said the rebels’ official for human rights, Daria Morozova.
Around 40 prisoners on each side – some of them wounded – are to be handed over, with the exchange to take place deep in rebel territory, in the city of Lugansk, Morozova said.
Journalists were put in a convoy carrying the rebels’ prisoners from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk to Lugansk. The soldiers had beards and looked tired. One had his arm bandaged.
There was no immediate confirmation of the swap from the Ukrainian side, though smaller exchanges have taken place in recent weeks with little fanfare.
If it goes ahead Saturday, the prisoner exchange would be a rare act of compliance with a UN-backed truce that has been repeatedly violated since coming into effect February 15.
In the most egregious breach, the pro-Russian separatists overran a strategic transport hub, Debaltseve, midway between Donetsk and Lugansk.
That offensive forced 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers to flee under fire, with at least 13 of them killed. The insurgents seized at least 110 troops as prisoners, adding to the unknown number of detainees held by each side.
Germany and France, which brokered the truce agreed by Ukraine, the rebels and Russia, are standing by it despite the many violations.
“We don’t have any illusions” about the difficulty involved, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after meeting French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Friday.
But she said she was “even more convinced” a truce leading to a negotiated solution was the only way to end the conflict, which the United Nations estimates has killed 5,700 people since it began in April last year.
Under the truce, both sides were to withdraw their heavy weapons from the frontline by March 3, carry out a prisoner exchange, conduct negotiations on greater autonomy in rebel-held areas, and eventually restore Ukraine’s control over all of its border with Russia.
None of those steps has so far been taken.
Kiev and the rebels continue to trade accusations of shelling, mortar rounds and rocket strikes targeting their positions.
Ukrainian defence officials allege that Russia has deployed 20 tanks towards the port city of Mariupol and that their forces have shot down several enemy reconnaissance drones.