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UPDATE 1-Russia and Ukraine leaders, in first talks, agree to exchange prisoners

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By John Irish and Margaryta Chornokondratenko

PARIS, Dec 9 (Reuters) – The leaders of Russia and Ukraine agreed on Tuesday to exchange all remaining prisoners from the conflict in east Ukraine by the end of the year, but left thorny questions about the region’s status for future talks.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in their first face-to-face meeting, took part in nine hours of talks in Paris, brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine that broke out in 2014 has killed more than 13,000 people and aggravated the deepest east-west rift since the Cold War.

Meeting for the first time since Zelenskiy, a comedian-turned-politician, was elected earlier this year on a promise to resolve the conflict, the body language between him and Putin was chilly. There was no public handshake, and they avoided eye contact.

But the talks deliver specific commitments, with a final communique setting out the prisoner exchange, as well as a renewed commitment to implement an existing ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region that has never fully taken hold.

In addition, Zelenskiy said he and Putin had worked out the outline of an agreement that would allow the transit of Russian natural gas to continue across Ukrainian soil. A member of the Russian delegation said officials had been instructed to hammer out details.

“We have made progress on disengagement, prisoner exchanges, ceasefire and a political evolution,” Macron said at a news conference at which Zelenskiy and Putin sat separated by Merkel and Macron.

“We have asked our ministers in the coming four months to work on this… with a view to organising local elections in four months,” he said, acknowledging there remained differences on the calendar.

However, there was no definitive agreement on the political issues that stand in the way of resolving the conflict. These include the status of Donbass within Ukraine, who should de facto control the border between Donbass and Russia, and how local elections in the region should be conducted.

Agreement was reached to hold another round of talks in the so-called Normandy format, brokered by France and Germany, within four months.

There has been scant sign of a peaceful solution to the crisis despite a 2015 ceasefire deal in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Monday’s summit is the first time the four leaders have met under the Normandy format since 2016.

Many Ukrainians are concerned about compromising with Russia. They see Putin as an aggressor seeking to restore the Kremlin’s influence on the former Soviet republic and ruin Ukraine’s aspiration for closer European ties.

Protesters who have warned Zelenskiy about making concessions to Putin in Paris were camped outside the presidential palace in Kiev, watching the final news conference on a big screen.

Putin, too, is unwilling to be seen to bend to outside pressure over eastern Ukraine, and does not want to be seen to be leaving the Russian-speaking population of Donbass at the mercy of the government in Kiev. (Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris, Paul Carrel in Berlin and Matthias Williams and Natalia Zinets in Kiev Writing by Christian Lowe Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)