Ukraine’s Mariupol defenders, Putin ally in prisoner swap

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner swap early Thursday, the culmination of months of efforts to free many Ukrainian fighters guarding a steel plant in Mariupol during a siege. extension of Russia. In return, Ukraine gave up a prominent ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin and 55 other prisoners.

President Volodymr Zelenskyy said his government had won freedom from Russian detention of 215 Ukrainian and foreign nationals, with the help of Turkish and Saudi reconciliation efforts. Ut. He said many people who were soldiers and officers had faced the death penalty in the territory occupied by Russia.

Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on what appeared to be the largest prisoner exchange in the nearly seven-month war.

Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for only one – pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukrainian. The 68-year-old tycoon escaped from house arrest in Ukraine a few days before the Russian invasion on February 24 but was recaptured in April. He faces life in prison for treason. and supporting and abetting a terrorist organization that mediates coal purchases for the separatists, the Russian-backed republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Medvedchuk knew Putin when he was still serving as chief of staff to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The Russian leader is the godfather of his daughter Medvedchuk. His detention sparked a heated exchange between officials in Moscow and Kyiv.

Medvedchuk is the head of the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life, the largest opposition group in Ukraine’s parliament. The Ukrainian government has suspended the party’s activities; Putin has repeatedly spoken of Medvedchuk as a victim of political repression.

Zelenskyy said in his nightly video speech: “It is with no regrets to give up Medvedchuk for real warriors. “He passed all the investigative actions the law provides. Ukraine received from him everything necessary to establish the truth within the framework of the criminal procedure”.

In another exchange, Ukraine secured the release of five top Ukrainian commanders guarding the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners that the country is holding, Zelenskyy said.

More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov Regiment, marched out of the ruins of the Azovstal steel mill to Russian detention in mid-May, ending the nearly three-year siege of the port city of Mariupol. month.

Zelenskyy said the five leaders, including Azov Regiment commanders Denys Prokopenko and Svyatoslav Palamar, are in Turkey, where they will stay as part of a “completely safe” deal until the war ended, under the protection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The complicated prisoner swap also resulted in the release of 10 foreigners, including five British nationals and two former American soldiers who had fought with Ukrainian forces. US and Saudi officials said they were released by Russian-backed separatists as part of a Saudi-brokered exchange.

A video on the BBC news site on Thursday showed two of the released British men, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, talking inside a plane.

“We just wanted to let everyone know that we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way back home to our family,” Aslin said in the video, as Pinner added: “To the teeth.”

The BBC reported that the two men, along with a third British detainee, John Harding, had arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It said they appeared to be accompanied by a group of Saudi officials.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them a “no small achievement”, but added that “a lot remains to be done to ease the pain of the war in Ukraine”, the spokesman said. his said. The UN chief reiterated the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The exchanges drew angry comments from some nationalist commentators in Russia. Igor Strelkov, a Russian officer who led the Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas when the conflict broke out in 2014, described the swap as an act of treason, saying “it was worse than a crime, worse than a mistake, it’s just absolute. stupid or destructive. “

___ Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.

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