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Ukraine exchanges dozens of prisoners with pro-Russian rebels

Fifty-two rebels were exchanged for 139 Ukrainian soldiers.

By
Fred Lambert

ZHOLOBOK, Ukraine, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Over 100 Ukrainian soldiers were freed in exchange for dozens of pro-Russian rebels Saturday in the first step toward compliance with a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine arranged earlier this month.

The prisoner swap comes one week after an agreement -- attended by Russia and Ukraine and brokered by France and Germany -- was reached in Minsk, calling for a ceasefire, a full prisoner swap and a pullback of weaponry from front-line positions.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted a confirmation of the prisoner exchange, which occurred under cover of darkness in Zholobok, 12 miles west of Luhansk.

The Ukrainians in turn released 52 rebel prisoners. The swap signals a move toward compliance with the Minsk agreement, but the deal called for a release of all prisoners, and it remains unclear how many from either side still remain in captivity.

The Feb. 12 ceasefire was in danger of complete collapse last week after fighting continued in Debaltseve, with rebel forces seizing the town and arguing that the ceasefire did not apply there.

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Speaking from London on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of "land-grabbing in Ukraine" and threatened additional sanctions over what he called unacceptable behavior from Moscow, echoing assertions by NATO, the Ukrainian government and Western leaders that Russia is actively supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine with weaponry and troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the claim and characterized Russian troops fighting in Ukraine as volunteers acting on their own accord. According to the United Nations, nearly 5,700 people have been killed in the country since combat erupted last April.

Reports on Saturday indicated that rebels were pulling back heavy weapons from the front, per the agreement. A Russian general involved in implementing the ceasefire told the BBC the process was underway, and a Ukrainian official said Kiev had been informed of the move, though it is not clear whether Ukrainian forces are doing the same.

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