Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have completed what was billed as an "all-for-all" prisoner swap near the city of Horlivka on December 29, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said.
Relatives and supporters of the former captives handed over to the Ukrainian side were converging on Kyiv's Boryspil Airport to meet them upon their arrival in the capital.
The swap, reportedly of around 200 prisoners in all, included Russians, fighters from the separatist ranks, convicted terrorists, and civilians and servicemen long held in the breakaway regions.
"Mutual release of detained persons has ended, " the presidential office said in a tweet, adding, "76 of ours are safe in Ukraine-controlled territory. Details later."
Serhiy Sivoha, an adviser to the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, told Ukraine's Hromadske TV that Ukraine had handed over 127 detainees within the framework of the exchange.
Among those Ukraine received were 12 were military personnel and 64 civilians, including two RFE/RL journalists.
Earlier, the UNIAN news agency had quoted a representative of the Donetsk separatists as saying that the Ukrainian side was expected to hand over 87 people, while the separatists were set to swap 55.
The swap was the second major prisoner exchange involving Ukrainians caught up in the conflict in four months.
It included the handover to the government side of two RFE/RL contributors who had been held by separatists since 2017: Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halazyuk.
PEN America, an open expression advocacy group, welcomed their release.
“It’s been 2 1/2 years since Aseyev and Halazyuk were detained. Their supposed crime: journalism,” said Polina Kovaleva, Eurasia project director for PEN America. “Reporters and writers have been frequent targets of Russia-backed separatists during the brutal conflict in eastern Ukraine. Those separatists’ kangaroo courts and sham proceedings kept these two men from their families and work for far too long.”
The notion of an "all-for-all" prisoner exchange gained momentum during peace talks in Paris on December 9 among the so-called Normandy Four -- Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany -- trying to bring an end to the five-year conflict.
In the last swap, Russia and Ukraine traded a total of 70 prisoners in a move that many regarded as progress in efforts to deescalate a war that has killed more than 13,000 people since Moscow forcibly annexed Crimea and Russia-backed gunmen grabbed swaths of eastern Ukraine including parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions 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.
After the swap on December 29, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted out congratulations of "liberated captives from Russia-controlled Donbas" and specifically cited "Russia's ongoing aggression [that] confronts Ukraine's leadership with difficult choices."
In Moscow, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had welcomed the prisoner swap as a "positive" development, AFP reported.
There was controversy ahead of the planned swap when families of protesters killed by riot police during pro-Western unrest in 2014 publicly objected to any of the police officers convicted in those killings being part of a trade.
Families of the victims of the riot policemen warned in an open letter on Facebook to Zelenskiy that the release of the men could lead to a "wave of protests."
"We would like to inform you that these people are neither participants nor victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine," they wrote.
A number of rights and press groups had urged the release of the RFE/RL contributors Aseyev and Halazyuk over the past two years.
Aseyev was sentenced by separatists in October to 15 years in captivity for alleged espionage in a process that rights and press-freedom groups called "illegal" and "shocking."
Halazyuk was a professor at a Kharkiv economic institute before he started blogging under the pseudonym Myroslav Tyamushchiy to chronicle life in a war zone after the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
"We are thrilled and relieved that Stas and Oleh have been released,” said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, who had urged Zelenskiy to seek the men's release during a meeting in Kyiv last month. “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."
Fly went on to thank the Ukrainian government and the so-called Trilateral Contact Group for their work toward winning the journalists' freedom.
The conflict in the region known as the Donbas is one of the biggest challenges facing Zelenskiy, who campaigned on a vow to end the conflict. He was inaugurated on May 20.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia for its support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine and for the seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.