(Vatican Radio) Russia and Ukraine have exchanged captured soldiers, but it remained unclear whether the move would ease tensions between the two neighbors as fighting continues between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine handed back nine Russian troops who were captured in eastern Ukraine last week.
Click below to hear the report from correspondent Stefan Bos
They were held as prisoners of war since last week, after they entered Ukraine. Moscow said the men had crossed the border by accident, but both Kiev and European Union ministers have accused Russia of invading Ukraine with troops to support pro-Russian separatists. Another injured Russian soldier was already returned to Russia. In the exchange, 63 Ukrainian soldiers who had entered into Russia on Wednesday were handed back to Kiev.
The Deputy Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Major-General Aleksei Ragozin told reporters it took time to come to an agreement with Kiev. The negotiations were very difficult. However, common sense triumphed and all ended well,"he said. "The most important thing is that our guys are back with us, in Russia. I want to emphasise that we never abandon our own. Necessary measures were taken to start the negotiations to return our soldiers back in Russia.”
During the five-month conflict, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have reportedly crossed the border into Russia, saying they were being pushed there by pro-Russian rebels.
Yet it remains unclear whether the prisoners of war exchange would ease tensions as fighting continues. Additionally Russia again wants to send a massive humanitarian aid convoy to eastern Ukraine where many Russian speakers have been without clean water and electricity amid heavy shelling. Kiev and the West fear the convoy is a cover to send weapons and other support to rebels, charges Moscow denies.
The European Union decided at its summit to prepare tougher sanctions against Russia, though several Eastern European countries, including Hungary and Slovakia, have expressed concern over the policies, fearing it could harm energy supplies and trade links with Russia.