SNEZHNOYE Ukraine (Reuters) - Watched over by separatist rebels with automatic weapons, a group of captured Ukrainian soldiers toiled with shovels and brooms on Friday to clear up dirt and rubble from the ruins of an eastern town.
Twelve prisoners aged between about 20 and 50 collected mud and earth into piles and loaded them into a lorry in the town of Snezhnoye, east of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
Looking exhausted but showing no signs of having been beaten, they said they had surrendered to the separatists five days ago after coming under fire near Amvrosiyivka, a town further south.
"Our column fell into an ambush and we came under fire. The leadership took the decision to surrender immediately because there was no point in putting up resistance," said 21-year-old Maxim, a soldier with cropped brown hair.
The pro-Russian rebels have been fighting the Ukrainian army since April in a conflict which according to the United Nations has killed some 2,600 people.
Maxim said the captives were interrogated and placed in cells. "There were more than 12 of us, the others are in the cell. They asked us to help clean the street, we agreed and came out," he said.
"I expected worse treatment, to be honest, it's not so bad. They're giving us food and water and not beating us. Everything's OK.
"They say 'Be patient lads, if you behave yourselves you'll go home. Maybe there'll be a prisoner swap.'"
Snezhnoye, not far from where a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel-held territory on July 17 with the loss of 298 lives, was the scene of fierce fighting last month between separatists and the Ukrainian army. Some buildings are in ruins, while others show the impact of shells.
As the prisoners worked, one of their guards told them to pick up rubbish and criticised them for taking too much rest.
Fedya, an older man guarding them, said: "We'll try to get them here as often as possible because there's a lot of destruction around the town."
Another of the rebels, Stas, said: "Let them rebuild the town - what they've messed up and bombed. They destroyed the town, let them dig out the rubble.
"They've got food, water, cigarettes, they won't die of hunger. They're not being beaten, they're fine, no one's laying a finger on them."
(Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Tom Heneghan)