Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels swap hundreds of captives in peace push

Prisoners from the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk" stand next to a Ukrainain soldier during a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels on December 26, 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Yasinovataya, near Donetsk. --
Prisoners from the self-proclaimed "People's Republic of Donetsk" stand next to a Ukrainain soldier during a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels on December 26, 2014 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Yasinovataya, near Donetsk. -- PHOTO: AFP

KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine (AFP) - Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels swapped hundreds of prisoners on Friday as part of a new push for peace that came despite Kiev’s decision to cut off key transport links to breakaway Crimea.

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

A round 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 guerillas and 145 Ukrainian troops.

And Ukraine’s suspension on Friday of all bus and rail service 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 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 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 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.”

And one of the 146 Ukrainian prisoner originally brought by the insurgents refused to rejoin his old military unit and was eventually taken back to Donetsk.

“All of my relatives are in Russia,” the ethnically-Russian Alexei Samsonov told AFP.

“I consider what the Ukrainian army is doing not to be right.”

State security sources in Kiev said the separatists were still holding about 500 government troops after Friday’s exchange.

The same source said Ukraine would be willing to swap them for several dozen rebels now 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.

Simmering East-West tensions over Ukraine prompted the Kremlin on Friday to published a revised and slightly more aggressive military doctrine that decries the “reinforcement of Nato’s offensive capacities on Russia’s borders”.

Moscow accuses Washington of orchestrating weeks of deadly protests in Kiev last winter that toppled an unpopular Russian-backed president and saw Ukraine anchor its future with the West.

The Minsk talks are meant to end the diplomatic jousting by reinforcing two compromise September deals that preserve Ukraine as a single nation in which the Russian-border regions enjoy more self-rule.

Yet, little of what was agreed nearly four months ago has been achieved.

The coal and steel producing 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 30km 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 denounced the rebel negotiators to Interfax-Ukraine as “absolutely incompetent people who are not responsible for making decisions and are uninformed about past agreements”.