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Zelenskiy Defends Decision To Swap Berkut Fighters With Separatists Amid Tearful Reunions In Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomes a Ukrainian serviceman who was exchanged during a prisoner swap with Russia-backed separatists at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv late on December 29.

Western leaders and Russia have welcomed a mass prisoner exchange amid efforts to end the five-year war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine's east.

The swap of 200 prisoners, which took place at a checkpoint near the separatist-held city of Horlivka in the eastern Donetsk region on December 29, included military personnel, civilians, members of Ukraine's disbanded Berkut security forces, and two RFE/RL journalists.

Ukraine handed over 124 prisoners, while the separatists turned over 76 prisoners as part of a deal negotiated during a meeting of the so-called Normandy Four -- Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France -- in Paris on December 9.

In a December 30 statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry described the handover as a "crucial humanitarian step that allowed dozens of people to reunite with their families and celebrate the New Year with their families and loved ones."

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the prisoner exchange in a joint statement released on December 29.

"The prisoner swap that was completed today is a long-awaited humanitarian measure,” read the statement released by the French president's office. “In line with the decisions taken at the Paris summit, it must now be followed by the full implementation of the cease-fire."

Ukraine, Russia-Backed Separatists Hold Prisoner Swap
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A spokesman for the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called it "a welcome example of implementation" of one of the measures agreed at the Normandy summit.

"The European Union expects all parties to further build on this momentum," the spokesman added. "Work to implement the measures agreed at the summit must continue."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy joined family members and supporters of the former prisoners who gathered at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport late in the evening of December 29 to greet the returnees.

"The people are home. We did what we said: [The prisoner swap took place] before the New Year," Zelenskiy told reporters after the tearful welcoming. "So, they will celebrate New Year with their families, in their homes, with parents, with children. That is great. I am happy and -- I am convinced -- so are they."

Zelenskiy also addressed the controversial decision to hand over five Berkut members accused of killing participants of the 2014 Euromaiden protests that led to the ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.

"If we hadn’t exchanged Berkut fighters, we would not have returned our people -- living people," Zelenskiy told reporters after greeting the former captives upon their arrival at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport. "If I could give away 100 Berkut fighters in order to return one of our scouts, I would do it."

Families of protesters killed by riot police during the pro-Western unrest in 2014 had publicly objected to any of the police officers convicted in those killings being part of a trade, warning in an open letter on Facebook that the release of the men could lead to a "wave of protests."

Among those Ukraine received were 12 military personnel and 64 civilians, including RFE/RL contributors Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halazyuk, who had been held by the separatists since 2017.

“We are thrilled and relieved that Stas and Oleh have been released,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a December 29 press release. “They were held incommunicado for 2 1/2 years, not because of any crime they committed, but because they reported the truth about Russia’s occupation of their homeland."

PEN America, an open expression advocacy group, also welcomed the journalists' release.

“Reporters and writers have been frequent targets of Russia-backed separatists during the brutal conflict in eastern Ukraine," said Polina Kovaleva, PEN America's Eurasia project director. "Those separatists’ kangaroo courts and sham proceedings kept these two men from their families and work for far too long.”

The swap was the second major prisoner exchange involving Ukrainians caught up in the conflict in four months and the fourth large-scale swap since the Donbas conflict started.

Russia and Ukraine traded a total of 70 prisoners on September 7 in a move that many regarded as progress in efforts to deescalate the war that has killed more than 13,000 people since Moscow forcibly annexed Crimea and Russia-backed gunmen grabbed swaths of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Russia insists it is not a party to the conflict, despite significant evidence that includes communication with separatist leaders, captured Russians, and Russian casualties in the fighting.

Nearly 400 prisoners were exchanged in December 2017 and more than 200 in February 2015.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, UNIAN, Interfax, and RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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