Luhansk rebels handed over 40 prisoners to Ukrainian authorities in what the separatist officials described as a "goodwill gesture." All of the prisoners were already in jail when the conflict started in 2014.
Ukrainian separatists transferred a group of 42 inmates to officials from the Kyiv government on Wednesday, following Kyiv's accusations that the rebels use prisoners as forced labor.
All of the inmates were tried and convicted before the hostilities started in 2014, senior Kyiv representative for human rights Lyudmila Denisova said in a Facebook post.
After the conflict started, the inmates found themselves jailed in the so-called Luhansk People's Republic, which is one of the two entities controlled by the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
"Through their relatives or legal representatives, the prisoners themselves have expressed their desire to return to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian state in order to continue serving their sentence," Denisova said.
Another group from Donetsk, which is also controlled by rebels, is due to be transferred tomorrow.
The Ukrainian government has received some 1,000 requests from prisoners in rebel-controlled areas, and is ready to take in all of them, according to Denisova.
Meanwhile, a senior source in the Luhansk rebels' administration said that the prisoners wanted to be closer to their families.
"It's simply a humanitarian gesture, a goodwill gesture on our part," the official said. "This is because Ukraine has done everything to stop their family members from coming to our republic to see them, from giving them messages or letters. Now they have this possibility."
Rebels also pledged to transfer another group of convicts in late January or early February 2019.
Representatives of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia are due to reconvene early next year to continue peace talks.
dj/sms (Ukrainski Novini, Interfax)