Ukraine announced a prisoner swap on Thursday that ended months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian fighters who defended a steel plant in Mariupol during a prolonged Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine handed over an ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky said his government had freed 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens. He claimed that many of them were soldiers and officers facing the death penalty in Russian-occupied territories.
Russian officials have not confirmed or commented on the prisoner swap so far.RELATED
In all, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for one man: pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine several days before the start of the Russian invasion on February 25, but was recaptured in April. He faced the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison on charges of treason and complicity with a terrorist organization for mediating coal purchases for the breakaway republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. His arrest sparked heated discussions between Moscow and kyiv officials. Medvedchuk is chairman of the political council of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Opposition Platform – For Life party, the largest opposition group in the Ukrainian parliament. The government has suspended the party’s activity.
“It is not a pity to hand over Medvedchuk in exchange for true warriors,” Zelensky said in a post on his website. “It has passed all the investigative actions established by law. Ukraine has received from you everything necessary to establish the truth within the framework of criminal proceedings.”
In another trade, Ukraine secured the release of five more of its citizens in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners in its custody, Zelensky added.
Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres applauded the exchanges, which he referred to as “something not minor”, but added that “there is still much to be done to end the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” said his spokesman. Guterres reiterates the need to respect international law in the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support more prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
According to Zelensky, many of those freed belonged to the Azov regiment, whom he called heroes. More than 2,000 fighters, many of them from the Azov unit, were taken into custody by the Russians after emerging from the rubble of the destroyed Azovstal steel plant in mid-May, ending a nearly three-year siege. months in the port city of Mariupol. Five of the released Azov commanders now live in Turkey, according to a post on Zelensky’s website.
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