Ukraine and Russia on Thursday carried out a surprise prisoner swap involving nearly 300 people, the largest since Moscow’s invasion began nearly seven months ago.
Africa Daily News, New York reports that those released were made up of prisoners of war from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Morocco, some of whom had been sentenced to death after being captured in Ukraine and accused of being mercenaries.
Russia also freed some 215 Ukrainians, including the five commanders who led a prolonged Ukrainian defence of the southern port city of Mariupol earlier this year.
In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians and Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was facing charges of treason.
The deal, hammered out with the help of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, had been under preparation for some time and involved intense haggling.
‘This is clearly a victory for our country, for our entire society. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safe and at home,’ Zelenskyy said in a video address in which he also thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his help.
‘We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.’
Saudi Arabia earlier announced the release of the 10 foreigners, following mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ‘in continuation of [his] commitment to the humanitarian initiatives towards the Russian-Ukrainian crisis’, according to a statement from the Saudi foreign ministry.
The group included five British nationals, two Americans, a Croatian, a Moroccan, and a Swedish citizen, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a plane carrying the prisoners had landed in the kingdom and that Saudi authorities were ‘facilitating procedures for their safe return to their respective countries’.
British legislator Robert Jenrick said Aiden Aslin was among those freed. Aslin was captured earlier this year and sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine.
Russia also released US citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, a family representative told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday.