NEAR HORLIVKA, Ukraine -- European leaders have hailed a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists that enabled hundreds of former captives to return to their homes for the New Year holiday.
In the biggest exchange of prisoners since the war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014, officials said 238 separatists held by the Ukrainian government were handed over to separatist-controlled areas of the Luhansk and Dontesk regions on December 27, while 74 captured soldiers and civilians were released by the separatists into government hands.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the exchange as an "important humanitarian gesture before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas."
The European leaders and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which supervised the exchange, urged the two sides to use momentum from the swap to work toward a broader peace in the region.
The "exchange is not only a humanitarian act, but also a helpful step in confidence-building," said Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissi, the organization's chairman.
From the exchange location, the freed Ukrainian soldiers flew by helicopter to Kharkiv, a government-controlled regional capital further northwest. They were then flown by plane to Kyiv.
"I'm out of hell. I survived," said former captive Yevhen Chudentsov, who said he was taken prisoner in February 2015 while serving with a Ukrainian volunteer battalion.
Chudentsov, whose front teeth were knocked out, said he was beaten and threatened while in separatist custody and was initially sentenced to death by the separatists, who later changed that to 30 years in prison.
The mother of Ukrainian prisoner Oleksandr Oliynyk said her son called during the exchange and told her, "I'm already here."
"I have not heard his voice for 3 1/2 years," she told Ukrainian news channel 112. "You can't imagine what it means for a mother, not to see your child for 3 1/2 years, since August 2014."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko greeted the prisoners freed by the separatists in the town of Horlivka near the front lines of the conflict and praised their endurance.
"I'm grateful to all those who remained loyal to Ukraine in those unbearable conditions," Poroshenko said. "They have shown their adherence to the principles of freedom and independence."
Hundreds of people turned out at the Kyiv airport late on December 27 to welcome the soldiers home, waving national flags, bouquets of flowers, and shouting "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our heroes!"
The exchange began when three vehicles carrying 16 people crossed from separatist-controlled territory near Horlivka at about 2 p.m. (1200 GMT/UTC).
Olga Kobtseva, a representative for separatists in the Luhansk region, told RFE/RL that 99 people from separatist-controlled territory in the Luhansk region were supposed to be part of the prisoner swap, but that 26 of them had either been released earlier or chose not to return to separatist-controlled territory.
Officials said that 165 people had been released by the government to separatists in the Donetsk province.
Ukrainian ombudswoman Valeria Lutkovska said that 43 of the 306 government-held captives who authorities had said would be exchanged did not arrive at the exchange point on December 27 because they had been released from custody earlier. She also said that about 10 to 15 of the 306 chose not to return to separatist-controlled areas.
The leader of separatists in the Donetsk region, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said the swap is only the first stage of possible further moves to exchange captives. Zakharchenko said more lists of prisoners were being compiled.
Fighting between Kyiv's forces and the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
Under a February 2015 cease-fire and peace deal known as Minsk 2, Kyiv and the separatists were supposed to "release and exchange...all hostages and unlawfully detained persons" within five days of its signing.
But that did not happen, and there have been no prisoner swaps between Kyiv and the separatists for 15 months.
Shortly before the planned exchange on December 27, Ukraine's military said that one of its soldiers had been killed and five wounded during the previous 24 hours in the east.
A Defense Ministry statement said that Russia-backed separatists violated the frequently breached cease-fire six times using assault rifles, machine guns, and mortars.
According to the ministry, separatist fighters used a drone to coordinate mortar attacks -- a practice that is banned under the Minsk accords of 2014 and 2015 that are aimed at resolving the conflict.
Separatists said on December 27 that Ukrainian government forces attacked the village of Kalynivka in the Luhansk region overnight using assault rifles, grenade launchers, mortars, and heavy artillery.
After massive protests pushed Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014 following his decision to scrap a landmark deal with the European Union, Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimea region and fomented separatism across eastern and southern Ukraine. The Russia-backed separatists seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, igniting the war and severely straining Russia's relations with Kyiv and the West.
Implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement has been slow and several other aspects of the deal appear far from being fulfilled. Western officials and rights groups have voiced concern about flare-ups in recent weeks, with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini saying the humanitarian and security situation had “deteriorated abruptly” of late.
With reporting by Hromadske TV, Interfax, UNIAN, AFP, Reuters, and AP