Russia and Ukraine announce a significant shock prisoner swap

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Kyiv/RIAD, Sept 21 (Reuters) – Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange, the largest since the war began, involving nearly 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who previously supported a prolonged Ukrainian defense of Mariupol had led year.

The foreigners released included two Britons and a Moroccan man who were sentenced to death in June after being captured fighting over Ukraine. Three other Britons, two Americans, a Croat and a Swede were also freed.

The timing and scale of the exchange came as a surprise as earlier in the day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial troop mobilization, marking an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists also said last month that the Mariupol commanders would be put on trial. Continue reading

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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the swap – which included aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – had been in the pipeline for some time and would involve intense haggling. Under the terms of the deal, 215 Ukrainians were released, most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol.

In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was accused of treason.

“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our society as a whole. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safely and at home,” Zelenskyy said in a video address.

“We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.”

Zelenskyy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said five senior Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

Kyiv had a long and difficult battle to get the five released, he said.

Prisoners of war (five British nationals, one Moroccan, one Swede, one Croat and two Americans) are seen on the tarmac after arriving after being transferred from Russia to King Khalid International Airport following successful mediation efforts by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia September 21, 2022. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

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They include Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Battalion, which fought much of the fighting, and his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar. Also released was Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.

The three men had helped lead a stubborn week-long resistance from the bunkers and tunnels beneath Mariupol’s massive steelworks before they and hundreds of Azov militants surrendered to Russian-backed forces in May.

“We are proud of what you have done for our nation, proud of each and every one of you,” Zelenskiy said in a video call with the five released by his office.

There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the deal and why it had freed men who Russia-backed separatists said would be tried later that year.

Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement whereby the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has close ties to Putin, was involved in the mediation.

Those freed included US citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in fighting in eastern Ukraine in June.

Also released were Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, all of whom were sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Since the Russian invasion on February 24, scores of foreigners have traveled to Ukraine to fight.

The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia does not allow access to prisoners of war, adding that the UN has evidence some have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could amount to war crimes. Continue reading

Russia denies torture or other forms of ill-treatment of prisoners of war.

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Reporting by Valentyn Ogirenko in Kyiv, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh and David Ljunggren in Ottawa Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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