26 December 2014
Last updated at 18:26
Three soldiers freed in rebel-held Luhansk were collected by their mothers
Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have exchanged scores of prisoners with the Ukrainian government near the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
The rebels were due to swap 150 soldiers for 225 people held by the government.
It appears that most of the captives were exchanged, with the remaining releases due to take place on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ukraine froze vital bus and rail links with Crimea, its southern territory 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, which was heavily covered by Russian media, took place 35km (22 miles) north of Donetsk, according to Russian news agency Ria-Novosti.
Mothers came to Luhansk to collect their sons
It was the largest exchange of prisoners since the start of the conflict in April, the news agency said.
Unverified images on Twitter show 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 Artyom 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.
With no land corridor to Russia, Crimea still relies heavily on Ukraine economically.
Ukraine: the human cost
- 5,200,000 affected by conflictUkraine and rebels trade prisoners
- 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