MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken to the eastern Ukraine's rebel leaders to discuss a prisoner swap, his first publicly acknowledged direct contact with the pro-Russian separatist republics.
The Kremlin said late Wednesday that Putin spoke by telephone with Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, and Igor Plotnitsky, head of the Lugansk People's Republic.
The entities, located in Ukraine's Donetsk and Lugansk regions, declared independence from Kiev following Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, launching a war which has lasted to this day, killing more than 10,000 people.
Putin on Wednesday met with Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is one of Kiev's representatives in talks with the rebels and with whom he has close personal ties.
Medvedchuk asked for Putin's assistance in the swapping of 306 rebels imprisoned by Kiev for 74 people jailed by the separatist republics before Christmas.
Putin discussed Medvedchuk's proposal with Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky who "supported the initiative," the Kremlin said.
Both rebel leaders confirmed Thursday they supported the swapping initiative.
Kiev accuses Moscow of fuelling the conflict in Ukraine's east and supporting the separatists with weapons and troops. Russia has denied such allegations, saying any such soldiers fighting for the separatist cause are volunteers