Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have agreed on the need to expedite an exchange of prisoners held on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Merkel’s office says.
A spokesman for Merkel on December 22 said the comments came in a telephone conversation between the two leaders. It also came a day after Merkel had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This [a prisoner swap] will be an important step in the implementation of the Minsk agreements," the spokesman said.
"President Poroshenko stressed that he would do everything to ensure that the exchange took place as soon as possible," he added.
Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Poroshenko's government forces in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people since it started in April 2014. Russia has also annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, a move not recognized by the international community.
The Ukrainian presidential press service said Poroshenko and Merkel supported the latest agreement reached in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) to establish a new cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.
The TCG -- Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) -- said on December 20 that they agreed on a holiday cease-fire to begin at midnight on December 23.
While welcoming the holiday cease-fire, both leaders agreed it should lead to a longer-term improvement of the security situation in the region, officials said.
Several cease-fire deals have been announced as part of the so-called Minsk agreements -- September 2014 and February 2015 accords aimed at resolving the conflict -- although they have met with little success on the ground.
During the TCG meeting, the parties also confirmed the need to move forward with the prisoner swap, although specific dates were not settled upon. Some officials have expressed hopes that the exchange would take place before the end of the year.
Reports say Ukraine has 306 separatist fighters in custody, while the separatists are holding 74 government soldiers.
The Ukrainian and German leaders expressed regret over Russia's decision to unilaterally withdraw its representatives from the Joint Control and Coordination Center (JCCC) for the cease-fire in the conflict region.
They urged Moscow to rejoin the JCCC effort and discussed the possibility of German and French representatives becoming involved in the process.
The planned cease-fire as well as the potential prisoner exchange were discussed by Putin and Merkel during a phone call on December 21, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Putin also told Merkel that Russia withdrew its military observers from the JCCC because of what Moscow said were "restrictions and provocations" by Ukrainian authorities, according to the Kremlin.
Kyiv criticized Moscow’s decision, saying it could fuel hostilities