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Ukraine, pro-Russia forces start first 2020 prisoner swap

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This handout picture, taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service on April 16, 2020, shows Ukrainian prisoners during an exchange at the Mayorske checkpoint in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. (Via AFP)

The Ukrainian government and pro-Russia forces in eastern Ukraine have started the first prisoner swap in 2020 as part of measures aimed at easing tensions between Kiev and Moscow.

Ukraine’s presidential office announced on Thursday that Kiev would take back 19 of its citizens, without mentioning the number of prisoners it would return.

“The current release demonstrates the effectiveness of the president’s strategy and compliance with the agreements reached during the Normandy summit in December 2019,” the office said in a statement.

In December last year, the representatives of the Kiev government and the pro-Russia forces in Ukraine agreed to carry out an exchange.

The agreement came after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, held their first face-to-face talk at a Paris summit in the same month and agreed to “commit to a full and comprehensive implementation” of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine by the end of December and proceed with a new withdrawal of forces from conflict zones by March 2020.

Zelensky said at the time that he expected all the 72 Ukrainian prisoners held by the pro-Russians to return home before year’s end.

Russia and Ukraine last swapped prisoners in September 2019, the first such exchange in two years.

The full release of the prisoners appears to pave the way for the restoration of relations between the two countries after a nearly five-year hiatus over the conflict.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev deteriorated in 2014, when the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea joined Russia following a referendum.

An armed conflict then broke out in Ukraine’s east between the government and allied militia on the one side and pro-Russians on the other.

The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

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