Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called “superheroes” the Ukrainian commanders who were freed by Russia as part of an unexpected prisoner exchange involving nearly 300 people. The action included, for example, those who led the defense of Mariupol and foreigners.
Under the terms of the deal, which Turkey helped broker, 215 Ukrainians – most of whom were captured after the port city fell – were released on Wednesday. In return, Ukraine sent back 55 pro-Moscow Russians and Ukrainians.
Ten foreigners were also freed after mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Five superheroes have been exchanged for 55 of those who deserve neither compassion nor pity,” Zelensky said in a speech.
The timing and size of the exchange came as a surprise. Earlier in the day, Putin had announced a partial deployment of troops in Russia in an apparent escalation of the conflict. In addition, pro-Russian separatists had said last month that the Mariupol commanders would stand trial.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the deal.
Ukrainians applauded the exchange
“We live for soldiers. They are our pride, our glory, our joy – our boys. I just hope they can all be freed. And may our mother-Ukraine also be freed,” said Tamara Herasymenko, 55, a resident of Kiev.
The five senior commanders released include Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko and his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar, both from the Azov battalion, which did much of the fighting in Mariupol and is respected in Ukraine.
Also in the group was Serhiy Volynsky, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, who, in April, posted a video message of where the fighters were hiding: bunkers under the vast steelworks of Mariupol.
“This is our call to the world. It could be our last. We may only have a few days or hours left,” he warned at the time.
The three men helped lead the resistance for weeks before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered in May to Russian-backed forces.
Zelensky held a video call with the men after their release from captivity.
The five commanders will remain in Turkey until the end of the war, and Zelensky thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help after what he said was a long and difficult struggle to secure his release.
The Azov Regiment is reviled by the Kremlin as neo-Nazis who hate Russia. The battalion denies allegations of fascism, Nazism and racism and says that Ukrainians of various origins serve in Azov, which is now fully integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces.
The eventual capture of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov was a great strategic prize for Russia, although its forces reduced the port city to a wasteland littered with bodies after nearly two months of siege and heavy bombardment.
That meant Russia had a secure land route linking the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014, with mainland Russia and parts of eastern Ukraine already dominated by separatists.
The freed foreigners included two Britons and a Moroccan who had been sentenced to death in June after being captured fighting for Ukraine. Three other Brits, two Americans, a Croatian and a Swede were also exchanged.
Among those who left Ukraine was Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of a banned pro-Russian party, who faced charges of treason.
Riyadh negotiated an agreement whereby the 10 foreigners were taken to Saudi Arabia.
The freed US citizens were Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in June while fighting in the east of the country.
British Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun were sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk.
Source: CNN Brasil