Kiev: 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, beaming and wearing a black bomber jacket, walked up to the back cargo bay of a military transport plane that landed at a military airport outside Kiev in the dawn hours of Saturday to hail the men.
He firmly shook hands and tightly embraced them -- 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 and arms," Poroshenko said as the released men huddled around him on the tarmac.
Ukraine`s chronically underfunded army has been criticised heavily by the public for failing to stamp out a revolt that has claimed 4,700 lives and continues to threaten the former Soviet republic`s very existence.
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 Ukranian warrior".
Ukraine`s allies in Europe hope that Friday`s exchange will mark a watershed moment 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 around the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk and its surrounding regions.
But the original deal -- agreed with the help of European and Russian mediators in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Wednesday -- called for the release of 150 state troops and 225 militants.
"Unfortunately, not everyone was released. Another four of your comrades will come back on (Saturday)," Poroshenko said in reference to a much smaller prisoner swap expected to take place in another part of eastern Ukraine.
"But 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."
Saturday`s swap was due to involve both sides` fighters captured in Donetsk`s neighbouring breakaway region of Lugansk.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 have convinced few Western nations.
Russia -- its economy already under severe pressure from the plunge in the value of its oil exports -- is suffer 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.
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 in negotiations in Belarus on Friday that was meant to have been crowned by the signing of a comprehensive truce deal has been indefinitely postponed.
"For the moment, there is no clarity about the next Minsk meeting," Lugansk rebel negotiator Vladislav Deynego told AFP.
"There is no information about a date."