KIEV (AFP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday welcomed home as heroes 145 soldiers freed by pro-Russian rebels during the largest prisoner swap of the eight-month separatist war.
The Western-backed leader donned a black bomber jacket before walking up with a grin on his face to the back cargo bay of a transport plane that landed at a military airport outside Kiev in the dawn hours.
He shook hands and tightly embraced the men - some young and others sporting greying beards - as they trundled down the steps wearing regular civilian clothes and knitted skull caps in the searing cold.
"My heart as that of a president and citizen is brimming with joy that you - as I had promised - will be able to meet the New Year with your families and comrades in arms," Poroshenko said as the released men huddled around him on the tarmac.
Ukraine's badly underfunded army has been castigated by the public for failing to stamp out a revolt that has claimed 4,700 lives and threatens to redraw the former Soviet republic's borders.
Poroshenko appeared to be addressing that rebuke by praising the men for "not breaking or changing and firmly keeping your military morale, demonstrating the best qualities of a Ukrainian warrior".
Ukraine's allies in Europe hope that Friday's exchange will mark a watershed in a war that seems at a stalemate but still rages on because of the immense mistrust between the two sides.
Kiev on Friday freed 222 insurgent fighters captured near the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk and its surrounding regions.
Another four Ukrainian soldiers were handed over on Saturday by insurgents fighting in the neighbouring breakaway province of Lugansk.
"We will search for and find everyone and not leave anyone behind," Poroshenko promised.
"The country will fight for each one of its faithful sons."
CHEAP RUSSIAN COAL
The Minsk negotiations were called to reinforce a largely ignored peace plan struck in September that aimed to both stem the bloodshed and ease the crisis in East-West relations the conflict has sparked.
The eastern revolt began only weeks after Russia's March seizure of Crimea and appeared to have been staged in reprisal for the February ouster in Kiev of a Moscow-backed president.
Russia had initially denied parachuting in its troops to capture the Black Sea peninsula. But President Vladimir Putin later awarded medals to soldiers involved in the Crimean campaign.
And the Kremlin's rejection of charges that it was now doing the same in Ukraine's separatist east has convinced few Western nations.
Russia - its economy already under severe pressure from the plunge in the value of its oil exports - is also suffering from increasing heavy US and EU financial penalties as a result.
The Kremlin fired back at the West by publishing a revised military doctrine on Friday that decries the "reinforcement of Nato's offensive capacities on Russia's borders".
But Ukraine went on the offensive as well by cutting all rail and bus links to Crimea - a decision made citing security concerns that effectively severed the peninsula of 2.3 million from the mainland.
The respected editor of Kiev's Ukrainska Pravda news site reported that Poroshenko - whose crisis-hit country is reeling from rolling power outages - was putting additional pressure on Crimea to win urgent energy concessions from Russia.
And the Kremlin surprised many on Saturday by announcing plans to start providing Ukraine with up to one million tonnes of coal and an undisclosed amount of electricity at discounted rates every month.
"Considering the critical situation with (Ukranian) energy supplies, Putin decided to start these shipments despite the lack of prepayments," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Tass new agency.
STALLED PEACE TALKS
European mediators now hope to use the swap to propel peace talks in Minsk that the rebels said on Saturday appeared to be going nowhere.
A final round of negotiations in Belarus on Friday which was meant to have been crowned by the signing of a comprehensive truce deal has been indefinitely postponed.
The two sides have been trying to save the peace process by holding periodic Skype video conference calls and submitting their proposals for a joint final statement to the European mediating team.
But separatist leaders reported little progress since Friday's negotiations delay.
"For the moment, there is no clarity about the next Minsk meeting," Lugansk rebel negotiator Vladislav Deynego told AFP.