Ukraine and rebels trade prisoners in Donetsk

Rebel gunmen face Ukrainian prisoners prior to their release near Donetsk, 26 December Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rebel gunmen escorted the Ukrainian soldiers to the release point

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have exchanged scores of prisoners with the Ukrainian government near the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

The deal was to swap 150 Ukrainian soldiers for 225 militants - the biggest exchange so far.

Ukraine later said 146 of its soldiers had been freed for 222 militants. The remaining releases are due on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ukraine froze vital bus and rail links with Crimea, its southern peninsula annexed by Russia in March.

In another move, the world's two largest credit and debit card companies, Visa and Mastercard, said on Friday they could no longer support bank cards being used in Crimea, following fresh US sanctions imposed this month.

The moves come ahead of the traditional holiday season in the region, when people travel to be with their families for New Year.

Inconclusive talks were held this week in Minsk, Belarus, on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed 4,700 lives.

Although fighting has lessened considerably, the conflict continues and more than 1,300 people have died since a truce was announced in September, the BBC's David Stern reports from Kiev.

Kiev accuses Moscow of actively supporting the militants with Russian soldiers and heavy artillery. The Kremlin denies this but says its regular forces are fighting in eastern Ukraine as volunteers.

Mothers and sons

The prisoner swap took place near the town of Avdiyivka, about 35km (22 miles) north of Donetsk.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rebel prisoners wait to be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Three soldiers freed in rebel-held Luhansk were collected by their mothers
Image copyright EPA
Image copyright EPA

Ukrainian and Russian media showed rows of men in civilian clothes standing on a road, supervised by armed men.

"They only just told us that this would happen," freed Ukrainian soldier Artem Syurik was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

"I am looking forward to seeing my parents and wife. They do not know I am coming."

Freed rebel fighter Denis Balbukov said: "I want to eat fried potatoes and talk to my relatives."

But he added: "I will go back to fighting. It was all right once we were moved to the detention centre, but to begin with, they really tormented and roughed us up."

The peace talks in Minsk broke up on Wednesday with no indication of when they would be resumed.

However, it is believed the two sides remain in contact via Skype.

In another development, three Ukrainian soldiers held by rebels in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine were released to their families on Friday.

No conditions were set for their release, according to the European Photopress Agency, which released pictures.

Crimea cut off

Ukraine's state land transport safety inspectorate (USSTSI) announced it was suspending bus services to the Crimean peninsula because of an unspecified "aggravation of the situation" in the territory.

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly accused Russia of building up its forces in Crimea.

Other road transport including passenger cars and lorries is not affected, Reuters news agency reports.

On the railway network, freight services were suspended on Friday with passenger services due to be run down over the next three days.

Flights from Ukraine into Crimea were suspended during the stand-off in March which ended in annexation after a disputed referendum on joining Russia.

Crimea has no land corridor to Russia, and relies on a ferry in the Azov Sea and flights from Russia.

The peninsula is also heavily dependent on Ukraine economically, including for power and water supplies.

Ukraine: the human cost

  • 5,200,000 affected by conflict
  • 4,707 people killed including 36 children
  • 10,322 wounded including 102 children
  • 542,080 people displaced inside Ukraine
  • 597,956 refugees and asylum seekers outside Ukraine

Source: United Nations 16 December