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Prisoner Swap Between Ukraine, Pro-Russia Separatists Appears to Be Moving Closer

Ukrainian prisoners of war stand in line before an exchange of captives with pro-Russia rebels in December 2014.

Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists appear to be moving closer to a new round of prisoner exchanges after a flurry of comments from Kyiv, Moscow, and separatist groups.

Yuriy Tandit, an adviser to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), on November 18 told Ukraine's Channel 5 that the "most important thing is that it happens fast, because many of the men have been there for a good three years."

Optimism has grown over the past few days after the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 15 told separatist leaders Aleksandr Zakharchenko of the Donetsk region and Igor Plotnitsky of Luhansk by phone that he favored a prisoner swap with Kyiv.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky supported a swap in principle but "pointed out that the issue will have to be worked out further on with representatives of Ukraine."

The SBU on November 16 said it welcomed "any steps" by Russia that would facilitate exchanges of people held by Kyiv and the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Tandit said the SBU was prepared to hand over the hundreds of separatist fighters being held by Ukrainian authorities in return for Ukrainian troops held by separatists.

Reports say Ukraine has 306 separatist fighters in custody, while the separatists are holding 74 government soldiers.

The separatists have controlled the capitals and some other districts of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces since the spring of 2014, when Moscow fomented separatism amid unrest that led to the downfall of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that February.

Russia does not recognize the separatist-held areas as independent and says it supports Ukraine's territorial integrity. Moscow also denies providing the separatists with troops, weapons, and other support in a war that has killed 10,000 people in the two regions since April 2014, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence of such support.

The Russian statements confirming that Putin spoke to the Russia-backed separatist leaders represented a rare public acknowledgment of such direct contacts.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv, TASS, and dpa
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