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Exchange of prisoners goes ahead


Ukrainian government army soldiers patrol an area in the village of Debaltseve, Donetsk (AP)

Ukrainian government army soldiers patrol an area in the village of Debaltseve, Donetsk (AP)

Ukrainian government army soldiers patrol an area in the village of Debaltseve, Donetsk (AP)

Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia rebels exchanged nearly 370 prisoners today, a major step toward easing hostilities.

Ukraine handed over 222 prisoners and the rebels released 145 people, according to Russia's state RIA Novosti news agency - the biggest one-time prisoners swap since the pro-Russian insurgency flared up in eastern Ukraine in April.

Hundreds of others were released during previous months.

Numbers of those to be released varied today and tensions were flying high as buses carrying the prisoners arrived at a site north of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

At some point during the exchange, separatist rights ombudsman Darya Morozova was quoted by Tass news agency as saying that the exchange was pushed back until tomorrow.

Russia's state television showed Ukrainian war prisoners boarding buses in Donetsk before being driven to a location north of the city where the exchange took place.

On the site where the swap was conducted, prisoners were called up by groups of 10 with officials from both sides verifying their identities.

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The exchange had been tentatively planned for earlier this week and the failure to conduct it pushed back another round of Ukraine peace talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, which was set for today but was adjourned indefinitely.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces, volunteer battalions and pro-Russia separatists has claimed more than 4,700 lives since last spring.

Previous rounds of talks in September produced a ceasefire and an agreement to pull back heavy weapons, but both sides have failed to agree on a line of division and fighting continued.

Hostilities have diminished in the past weeks amid renewed peace efforts but mutual suspicions and distrust have stymied progress.

Ukraine's parliament vote earlier this week to abandon the country's non-aligned status, a first step toward a possible bid for NATO membership which is an anathema to Moscow, also has hampered talks.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine today suspended train and bus services to the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula, citing security concerns.

Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in March following the ouster of Ukraine's former Moscow-friendly president after months of protests.

Adding to the residents' problems, Visa and MasterCard announced today that they halted card services in Crimea in line with the latest US sanctions.

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