Surprise swap of hundreds of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia

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Russia and Ukraine held this Wednesday an unexpected prisoner exchangethe largest since the start of the war and involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a protracted Ukrainian defense of Mariupol earlier this year.

Among the released foreigners are two Britons and a Moroccan who had been sentenced to death in June after being captured fighting for Ukraine. Three other Britons, two Americans, a Croat and a Swede were also released.

The timing and magnitude of the swap came as a surprise, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously announced a partial mobilization of troops in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists had also said last month that the Mariupol commanders would be put on trial.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the swap – which was helped by Turkey and Saudi Arabia – had been in the works for a long time and involved intense negotiation. Under the terms of the agreement, 215 Ukrainians – most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol – were released.

In return, Ukraine returned 55 pro-Moscow Russians and Ukrainians and Viktor Medvedchukleader of a banned pro-Russian party facing charges of treason.

“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our entire society. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safe and home,” Zelensky said in a video address.

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

Zelensky thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğanhis help and said that five top Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

kyiv had a long and difficult fight to secure the release of the five, he added.

Among them is Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion that did much of the fighting, and his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar. Serhiy Volynsky, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, was also released.

The three men had helped lead a tenacious resistance for weeks from bunkers and tunnels under Mariupol’s giant steel factory before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered in May to Russian-backed forces.

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

There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the deal and why it had released the men who Russian-backed separatists say were they would be judged this year.

Riyadh brokered an agreement whereby the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has maintained close ties with Putin, participated in the mediation.

Among the released prisoners are US citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in June while fighting in eastern Ukraine.

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

A large number of foreigners have traveled to Ukraine to fight since the Russian invasion on February 24.

The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia was not allowing access to prisoners of war, adding that the UN had evidence that some had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could constitute war crimes.

Russia denies torture or other forms of mistreatment of prisoners of war. (rts)

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