Kiev and rebels swap hundreds of captives in peace push

Kiev and rebels swap hundreds of captives in peace push

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels were today set to complete a swap of hundreds of prisoners as part of a new push for peace that came despite Kiev's decision to cut off key transport links to breakaway Crimea.

The exchange began yesterday on a dark and isolated stretch of a road north of the devastated eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and unfolded as negotiators from both sides held video talks on Skype at reviving stalled negotiations.

The swap involves a total of 222 guerrillas and 145 Ukrainian troops. A final five were due to be handed to Ukraine today from the neighbouring separatist province of Lugansk, according to a rebel spokeswoman.

Talks mediated by European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday had been supposed to pave the way for a final round yesterday and the signing of a comprehensive peace accord.

But Wednesday's acrimonious session broke up after five hours, with a deal reached on only the least contentious of the four agenda points: the prisoner swap.

And Ukraine's suspension yesterday of all bus and rail services to Crimea -- a decision made citing security concerns that effectively severed the peninsula of 2.3 million from the mainland -- added to the hostile tenor of the negotiations.

The video conferences, set to continue today, have so far failed to produce a new date for direct talks.

The prisoner handover now stands out as a rare example of cooperation between the two bitter enemies.

Some of the captives expressed surprise and joy at having the chance to go home in time for New Year's Eve -- the most cherished of all the holidays celebrated in once-communist eastern Europe.

"They only just told us that this would happen," said a slightly older Ukrainian soldier named Artyom Syurik.

"I am looking forward to seeing my parents and wife. They do not know I am coming."

Yet a rebel named Denis Balbukov sounded defiant as he sat in a Kamaz truck waiting to go home to Donetsk.

"I will go back to fighting," the 21-year-old said. "It was alright once we were moved to the detention centre, but to begin with, they really tormented and roughed us up."

But he too was looking forward to going home, adding: "I want to eat fried potatoes and talk to my relatives."

The two warring sides lined up the prisoners some 100 metres apart in the no-man's land between their frontlines, with heavily-armed soldiers and rebels fidgeting nervously in the dark with their automatic rifles.

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