December 20, 2014
Moscow, Kiev agree on troops swap
Ukraine and Russia swapped soldiers who had entered each other's territory near the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev says Moscow's forces have come to the aid of pro-Russian insurgents advancing for an assault on a major port.
Ukrainian troops and local residents were reinforcing the port of Mariupol today, the next big city in the path of pro-Russian fighters who pushed back government forces along the Azov Sea this past week in an offensive on a new front.
The new rebel advance has drawn increasing concern from Ukraine's Western allies, who say its success is a result of reinforcement by armoured columns of Russian troops.
European Union leaders agreed yesterday to draw up new economic sanctions against Moscow, a move hailed by the United States, which is planning tighter sanctions of its own and wants to act jointly with Europe.
Some residents of Mariupol have taken to the streets to show support for the Ukrainian government as the pro-Russian forces gain ground. Many others have fled from the prospect of an all-out assault on the city of nearly 500,000 people.
The swap of soldiers overnight at the frontier was a rare gesture to ease tension, but Kiev and Moscow have given starkly opposing accounts of how their troops came to be on each other's territory.
A Russian paratroop commander said an unspecified number of Russian paratroops were swapped for 63 Ukrainian soldiers. A Ukrainian military source said the Russian soldiers numbered 15.
Kiev and its allies in Europe and the United States say the new rebel offensive has been backed by armoured columns of more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting openly to support the insurgents. The rebels themselves say thousands of Russian troops have fought on their behalf while "on leave".
Moscow denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine and says a small party of its soldiers crossed the border by accident.
Russian Major-General Alexei Ragozin said the paratroops had been handed back after "very difficult" negotiations.
"I consider it unacceptable that our servicemen were detained by the Ukrainian side for so many days. Our lads are upset about everything that happened. They will all receive the necessary psychological and other kinds of help. The lads will all be OK."
Ragozin said Russia, by contrast, had promptly returned hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who at various times have crossed the border when squeezed by rebel forces. He said the latest group of 63 had entered Russia on Wednesday.
Kiev has in the past said some of its soldiers crossed into Russia to escape from fighting on the Ukrainian side of the frontier, behaviour that contrasts with that of the Russians it says crossed the border to wage war in Ukraine. Ukraine's military spokesman has mocked the idea that the Russians had "got lost like Little Red Riding Hood in the forest."