Russia frees 215 Mariupol defenders in swap for Putin oligarch ally and 54 others

Kyiv says it secured freedom for hundreds who fought at Azovstal in exchange for Ukrainian pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk; deal mediated by Saudi Arabia, Turkey

Ukrainian soldiers released in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, hold the Ukrainian flag close to Chernihiv, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2022. (Ukrainian Security service Press Office via AP)
Ukrainian soldiers released in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, hold the Ukrainian flag close to Chernihiv, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2022. (Ukrainian Security service Press Office via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner swap early Thursday that was the culmination of months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian fighters who defended a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine gave up an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Volodymr Zelensky said his government had won freedom from Russian custody for 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens, with the help of Turkish and Saudi mediation efforts. He said many were soldiers and officers who had faced the death penalty in Russian-occupied territory.

Russian officials didn’t immediately confirm or otherwise comment on what appeared to be the biggest prisoner swap during the nearly seven-month war.

Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one man — pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian.

In another swap, Ukraine gained the release of five commanders who led Ukraine’s defense of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners it was holding, Zelensky said.

The 68-year-old oligarch Medvedchuk escaped from house arrest in Ukraine several days before Russia’s invasion on February 24 but was recaptured in April. He faced up to life in prison on charges of treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for mediating coal purchases for the separatist, Russia-backed Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine.

Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. 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 party, the largest opposition group in Ukraine’s parliament. The government has suspended the party’s activity.

Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk to each other during a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 18, 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“It is not a pity to give up Medvedchuk for real warriors,” Zelensky said in his nightly video speech. “He has passed all the investigative actions provided by law. Ukraine has received from him everything necessary to establish the truth in the framework of criminal proceedings.”

More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov Regiment, marched out of the Azovstal steel plant’s twisted wreckage into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.

Zelensky said the five leaders, including Azov Regiment commanders Denys Prokopenko and Svyatoslav Palamar, are in Turkey, where they will remain as part of the deal “in complete safety” until the end of the war, under the protection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky, second left, talks with Azov regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, second right, who was released in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, in Chernyhiv, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2022. (Ukrainian Interior Ministry Press Office via AP)

The complex prisoner swap also brought the release of 10 foreigners, including five British nationals and two US military veterans, who had fought with Ukrainian forces. They were released by Russian-backed separatists as part of an exchange mediated by Saudi Arabia, US and Saudi officials said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat,” but adding that “much more remains to be done to ease the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

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