Ukraine has announced that 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens have been released by Russia in a prisoner exchange, including fighters who led the defence of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks that became an icon of Ukrainian resistance.
Russia received 55 prisoners including Viktor Medvedchuk, a former Ukrainian lawmaker and ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accused of high treason, the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in his daily address.
Medvedchuk was arrested in April, after escaping house arrest on treason charges days after the Russian invasion. At the time, Zelenskiy suggested exchanging him for Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia but the Kremlin rejected the offer.
In May, Azov fighters surrendered after a long siege of the steelworks and were transferred to Russian-held territory.
The swap is the biggest exchange between the warring sides since the start of Russia’s invasion in February.
“We have managed to liberate 215 people,” the Ukrainian presidency’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, announced on television.
Zelenskiy said five military commanders including leaders of the defence of Azovstal were taken to Turkey as part of an operation agreed with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The released prisoners would remain in Turkey “in total security and in comfortable conditions” until the end of the war, he added. There was no comment from Moscow.
Ten prisoners of war including five Britons and two Americans, who were transferred from Russia to Saudi Arabia earlier on Wednesday, were part of the swap deal, Zelenskiy said.
On Tuesday, Erdogan told US television that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to swap 200 prisoners in one of the largest exchanges of the seven-month-old war.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov in south-eastern Ukraine, withstood weeks of relentless Russian bombardment, with resistance concentrated in a dense network of underground tunnels at its Azovstal steel plant.
Ukrainian forces’ longstanding refusal to surrender despite shortages of ammunition and supplies earned them praise across the country for their heroism in defying overwhelming odds against Russia’s superior numbers and firepower.
With Agence France-Presse