Ukraine on Wednesday announced the exchange of a record-high 215 imprisoned soldiers with Russia, including fighters who led the defense 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin accused of high treason, Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky said in his daily address.
The swap was the biggest exchange between the warring sides since the start of Russia’s invasion in February, AFP said.
“We have managed to liberate 215 people,” Ukraine’s presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak announced on television.
Zelensky said five military commanders including leaders of the defense of Azovstal were taken to Türkiye as part of an operation prepared well in advance and agreed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The released prisoners will remain in Türkiye “in total security and in comfortable conditions” until the end of the war, Zelensky added.
– ‘Hugely welcome news’ –
The Ukrainian forces’ longstanding refusal to surrender at Azovstal 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.
The prisoners of war comprised five British nationals, two Americans and one each from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said on Twitter that the release of the Britons was “hugely welcome news… ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families”.
Truss said they had been “held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine”.
MP Robert Jenrick on Twitter identified one of the British detainees as “my constituent” Aiden Aslin, who had been sentenced to death in June as an alleged mercenary after being captured by pro-Russian separatists.
Jenrick said the British detainees were “on their way back to the UK” and that Aslin’s family “could finally be at peace”.
“We look forward to our citizens being reunited with their families,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Twitter.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said on Twitter that the Swedish citizen, also held in Donetsk, “has now been exchanged and is well”.
In Zagreb, the foreign ministry named the released Croat as Vjekoslav Prebeg, detained in April, and said he would return on Thursday.