Ukraine and separatists begin largest prisoner exchange of conflict

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Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels have swapped hundreds of prisoners in the war-torn east of the country, one of the largest such exchanges since the outbreak of an insurgency nearly four years ago. A series of truce deals has helped lower the level of violence, but did not end the bloodshed.

The prisoners, some of whom had been held for more than a year, were exchanged in the town of Horlivka and the village of Zaitseve with their belongings. The Kremlin has also continued to aid pro-Russia fighters in the eastern part of Ukraine, where ties to Russia are stronger.Nauert's statement also said Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to continue to seek a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program and to support negotiations toward a peaceful end to the ongoing civil war in Syria, where the USA and Russia have supported opposing sides. "The last conditions were negotiated", he said, voicing hope that "the Ukrainian side will keep its promises".

Two Ukrainians - a man and a woman - also opted to stay on the rebel side.

"I'm not guilty of anything and I don't want to go to the other side", he said.

Donald Trump's decision to arm Ukraine was criticised by Russian officials, who said it would derail peace efforts and lead to further loss of life.

Family and friends of the freed Ukrainian prisoners gathered at Kiev's Borispol airport where the former captives were expected to arrive on Wednesday evening. "Glory to our heroes".

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed on social media "All 74 Ukrainian hostages are already at home, on the territory controlled by our army".

"Thank you for your perseverance, guys", Poroshenko said on Facebook.

The swap is in line with the so-called Minsk Protocol brokered by Germany and France in 2015.

Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed separatist rebels conducted a massive prisoner exchange Wednesday, the largest such trade since the start of an armed conflict in the country's east and a visible sign of progress in the implementation of a 2015 peace deal.

More than a dozen Ukrainian soldiers held by pro-Russian separatists have been released as part of a prisoner exchange.