The exchange on a stretch of a dusty road north of the devastated eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk came as negotiators from both sides held Skype video talks aimed at reviving stalled negotiations.
A round of talks mediated by European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday was due to have been followed by a final one on Friday at which a comprehensive peace accord was signed.
But Wednesday’s acrimonious session broke up after five hours with a deal reached on only the least contentious of the four agenda points: a prisoner swap involving 222 guerrillas and 145 Ukrainian troops.
The Skype consultations have so far failed to produce a new date for direct talks. Yet the prisoner handover went off without a hitch and now stands out as a rare example of cooperation between the two bitter rivals.
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.”
But a rebel named Denis Balbukov sounded defiant as he sat in a Kamaz truck waiting to go home to Donetsk.
“I want to eat fried potatoes and talk to my relatives,” said the 21 year old.
But “I will go back to fighting,” he added. “It was alright once we were moved to the detention centre, but to begin with, they really tormented and roughed us up.”
State security sources in Kiev said the separatists would still be holding about 500 government soldiers after Friday’s exchange.
The same source said Ukraine would be willing to swap them for several dozen rebels languishing in the country’s jails.
– ‘Incompetent and uninformed’ –
Smaller such exchanges have been frequent and often involved dozens of men.
Yet they appeared to have built far less trust between the warring parties than Ukraine’s Western allies would have hoped.
It also came as the Kremlin published a revised military doctrine that decries the “reinforcement of NATO’s offensive capacities on Russia’s borders”, and insists that the alliance is the fundamental threat to Russian security.
Friday’s talks in Minsk were meant to reinforce two September deals that aimed to preserve Ukraine as a single nation in which Russian-border regions enjoyed more self-control.
Yet little of what was agreed nearly four months ago has been achieved.
The heavily-Russified industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk staged their own leadership polls in November that infuriated Kiev and dampened early glimmers of hope of a political settlement being reached soon.
And insubordinate field commanders from both sides continued ignoring the formal truce declaration and waged battles that killed 1,300 more people.
UN officials fear that their total toll of 4,700 deaths may be too conservative because militias have been hiding their losses and denying outsiders access to their burial sites.
The most difficult task facing European mediators is finding a way for the sides to begin pulling back their tanks so that a 30-kilometre (18-mile) buffer zone could be established across the war zone.
The insurgents are currently most interested in seeing the resumption of social welfare payments that Kiev suspended last month out of fear that they were being used to finance the revolt.
Accounts of Wednesday’s meeting suggest that the teams cannot even agree what issues they should be discussing in the first place.
A source close to Kiev’s position at the table called the rebel negotiators “absolutely incompetent people who are not responsible for making decisions and are uninformed about past agreements”.
The source stressed to Interfax-Ukraine that “if we continue, it should only be in order to sign the Minsk (deals) and to develop them further — and not to revise them, which is what the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives tried to do.” -AFP