Kiev, Reuters—Kiev and pro-Russian separatists began an exchange of hundreds of prisoners of war on Friday, a state security service source said, part of a 12-point peace plan.
The agreement to swap 125 Ukrainian servicemen for 225 rebels followed peace talks between envoys of Ukraine, Russia, the separatists and European security watchdog Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on Wednesday.
“We’ve prepared 225 people, which we will hand over. The main thing is for this not to fall through now,” Markiyan Lubkyvsky, an aide to the head of Ukraine’s SBU security service told Reuters.
He later confirmed the process had begun. It was not clear how long it would take.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said rebels reported the exchange had already been completed in their eastern stronghold of Donetsk, resulting in a swap of 222 separatists for 150 Ukrainian prisoners.
The uprising by separatists began a month after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in March, following the popular overthrow of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president. The conflict has killed more than 4,700 people.
Kiev’s pro-Western government says Russia orchestrated the rebellion in Ukraine’s east, a charge denied by Moscow.
The peace plan also includes a ceasefire, agreed by Kiev and rebels in September. Most of the plan has not been implemented due to repeated violations of the ceasefire and because separatists defied Kiev by holding leadership elections.
It is not known exactly how many prisoners are held by the two sides, but Ukraine’s military said this month about 600 Ukrainians were in rebel hands.
Roughly 1,300 people have been killed since the ceasefire was agreed in September, according to the United Nations, but the fighting lessened significantly in December.
On Friday, however, the military said rebels had slightly stepped up their attacks on Ukrainian positions in the east and reported that a Ukrainian servicemen had been killed in the past 24 hours.
“In the past two days, (rebel) fighters started using artillery and GRAD rocket launchers. Attacks have intensified to a minor extent,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told Reuters.
“Rebels are using the ceasefire to regroup their forces,” he said later in a televised briefing.
Authorities in Kiev had said there could be further peace talks between Ukraine, Russia, the separatists and the OSCE in Minsk on Friday, but Belarus’s Foreign Minister Dmitry Mironchik said they would not take place, Belarussian Interfax reported, without elaborating.