Ukraine, separatists fail to agree on prisoner exchange
MINSK – Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists failed Wednesday to reach an agreement on a prisoner exchange and troops pullback after several hours of tense talks on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the separatist rebels met in the Belarusian capital Minsk to discuss conditions for a prisoner swap following a tentative agreement reached during peace talks in Paris last week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who met the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on Dec. 9, had hailed the prospective exchange as a key result of the Paris talks. He said he expected all 72 Ukrainian prisoners held by the separatists to return home before the year's end.
But Olga Kobtseva, a rebel representative in the so-called Contact Group in Minsk, said Wednesday's talks failed to produce an agreement. She cited Ukraine's refusal to absolve rebels in its custody of criminal charges as the main stumbling block.
On top of that, the parties were unable to confirm the numbers and verify the lists of prisoners to be swapped.
Another rebel envoy, Vladislav Dainego, said the parties also failed to agree on the areas where Ukrainian forces and the rebels would pull back from the front line to help maintain a lasting ceasefire.
"We proposed some areas, but the Ukrainian side proposed nothing," Dainego said.
Ukraine and the rebels had pulled back troops and weapons in several areas to help pave the way for the Paris talks, and the four leaders agreed last week that the disengagement will continue in a few other sectors of the front line.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko voiced regret in televised comments that the talks failed to produce an agreement. He wouldn't elaborate on details of the talks.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine that flared up in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea has killed more than 14,000 and ravaged Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
A 2015 peace deal in Minsk brokered by France and Germany helped reduce the scope of hostilities, but Ukrainian forces and the rebels have continued to exchange artillery salvos and gunfire.
During the talks in Paris, Zelenskiy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced their adherence to the 2015 deal and agreed to revive the peace process. However, they made no progress on central issues — a timeline for holding local elections in eastern Ukraine and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.
The Minsk deal envisaged that Ukraine can regain control over the border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted broad self-rule and hold local elections. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Russia, ensuring that the rebel regions get a broad authority and resources to survive on their own without cross-border support.
Zelenskiy pushed for tweaking the timeline laid out in the accord so that Ukraine gets control of its border first before local elections are held, but Putin insisted that the 2015 deal should be implemented without any revisions.
Associated Press journalist Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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