Kiev, pro-Russian separatists exchange hostages

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Germany welcomed on Wednesday a suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that armed UN peacekeepers could be deployed to eastern Ukraine to help protect ceasefire monitors, but said any prospect of lifting sanctions was still a way off. Putin said on Tuesday that Russia meant to draft a UN Security Council resolution to this end, saying it would help resolve the problem in eastern Ukraine, though he also said preconditions would have to be met before any deployment.

Ukrainian authorities and separatist rebels began a prisoner exchange in the country's east Wednesday, the first major trade of captives from their conflict this year.

Earlier, the sides have agreed that Kiev will release 306 Donetsk and Lugansk supporters in exchange for 74 soldiers and pro-government civilians.

In order to unlock situation, Orthodox Church played an active role and Patriarch Cyril became personally involved, meeting with rebel leaders Zaj√°rchenko and Leonid Pasechnik, new head of so-called People's Republic of Lugansk, or area In power of Russian rebels. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk's daughter.

There are also about 10-15 people who came for the swap, but refused to return to the areas controlled by the militants in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

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The exact number of prisoners exchanged is uncertain. But a recent escalation in hostilities has quashed hopes of an imminent end to the conflict, which is now the longest in Europe since the second world war.

Under the 2015 Minsk Agreement to stop the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Kiev administration and pro-Russia separatists must release captives, but to date hostage exchanges have been little seen. A ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect on 23 December was shattered within hours when a Ukrainian solider was killed.

OSCE observers have been monitoring the situation in Ukraine since 2014.

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.

Poroshenko insists Ukraine will use the weapons in a purely defensive manner to "rebuff the aggressor".