Russia and Ukraine announce a big surprise prisoner exchange

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Kyiv/RIYADH (Reuters) – Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange on Wednesday, the largest since the war began, involving nearly 300 people including 10 foreigners and commanders who led a protracted Ukrainian defense of Mariupol earlier. general.

Among the foreigners released were two Britons and a Moroccan who were sentenced to death in June after they were caught fighting for Ukraine. Three other Britons, an American, a Croatian and a Swede were also released.

The timing and scale of the swap came as a surprise, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced a partial troop mobilization earlier in the day in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists said last month that the leaders of Mariupol would be tried. Read more

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President Volodymyr Zelensky said the bargain – which included help from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – had been in the works for a long time and involved intense bargaining. Under the terms of the deal, 215 Ukrainians were released – most of them were captured after the fall of Mariupol.

In return, Ukraine returned 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians and Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was facing accusations of treason.

“Obviously, this is a victory for our country and our entire society. The main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safely and in their homes,” Zelensky said in a video speech.

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

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

He said Kyiv had fought a long and difficult battle to secure the release of the five.

Among them were Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Prokopenko, the commander of the Azov battalion that did most 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 weeks-long resistance from bunkers and tunnels beneath giant steelworks in Mariupol before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered in May to Russian-backed forces.

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

There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the deal and why it released men the Russian-backed separatists said would be tried later this year.

Saudi Arabia brokered an arrangement whereby the ten foreigners were transferred to Saudi Arabia. Mediation included Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has maintained close ties with Putin.

Among the released prisoners were US citizens Alexander Drake, 39, and Andy Hoen, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in June during the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

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Britons Aiden Aslin and Sean Benner and Moroccan Ibrahim Saadoun, who were all 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 does not allow access to prisoners of war, adding that the UN has evidence that some have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that may amount to war crimes. Read more

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

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(Covering) By Valentin Ogirenko in Kyiv, Aziz Al Yaqoubi in Riyadh, and David Younggren in Ottawa – Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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