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Ukraine: Azovstal commanders released in prisoner exchange

September 22, 2022

Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war after a prisoner exchange was brokered by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Among them were fighters from the Azovstal plant.

Prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine: Ukrainians commanders being released
Among those freed were several commanders of the Azov regiment Image: Interior Ministry of Ukraine/Handout/REUTERS

Ukraine announced the release of 215 imprisoned soldiers and 10 foreigners from Russia on Thursday.

The soldiers were released in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners, as well as Victor Medvedchuck, leader of the banned pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Among the released were fighters who led the defense of Mariupol's Azovstal's steelworks, an act that has been hailed as an icon of Ukrainian resistance. 

"We have managed to liberate 215 people," the Ukraine president's chief of staff Andriy Yermak announced on television. He went on to say that commanders of the Azov battalion were included in those released. 

The Azov regiment is a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine. It gained attention fighting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region since 2014.

Victor Medvedchuck, said to be Putin's right-hand man in Ukraine, is a Ukrainian politician who has been charged for alleged treason for his involvement with Russia. He was captured by Ukrainian forces in April. 

Surprise prisoner swap 'a moment of joy' in Ukraine: Emma Chaze reports

Support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia 

Yermak went on to thank Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter, saying that the Azov commanders were already safe in Turkey thanks to "personal arrangements" between Zelenskyy and Erdogan. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government also played a role in brokering the prisoner exchange. 

Among the foreigners released were five British nationals, two US military veterans and further prisoners from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia. They were flown to Saudi Arabia after being freed, the Saudi ministry said in a statement. 

"The relevant Saudi authorities received and transferred them from Russia to the kingdom and are facilitating procedures for their respective countries," the statement said.

International leaders thank Ukraine

The White House thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for brokering the exchange in which two Americans were freed. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Twitter that the White House thanked the Ukrainian government "for including two US citizens in the prisoner exchange announced today."

British Prime Minister Liz Truss celebrated the news on social media, too.

"Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,'' she tweeted.

los/aw (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)