KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed as “superheroes” the senior Ukrainian commanders, including those who led the dogged defence of Mariupol, who were freed by Russia as part of a prisoner swap involving 270 people, including foreigners.
Under the terms of the deal, which Turkiye helped broker, 215 Ukrainians — most of them captured after the fall of the port city — were released on Wednesday. In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians.
Ten foreigners were also freed following mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Among them was Briton Aiden Aslin, who had been sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic, who said they were “out of the danger zone”.
Asked how she felt on hearing about her boyfriend’s release in the swap, Ukrainian Yaryna Herashchenko said: “Happiness, shock, tears, joy a whole spectrum of emotions ...”
Herashchenko had not heard from her boyfriend Ihor, 32, since he surrendered in May when the steelworks he was defending in Mariupol in southeast Ukraine fell to Russian forces.
“Good morning once again, my darling! At the moment everything is good here,” Ihor said in an audio message to Herashchenko, 29, after his release along with more than 200 other Ukrainians in the prisoner swap.
The timing and size of the swap came as a surprise. Earlier in the day Putin had announced a partial troop mobilisation in Russia in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists had said last month that the Mariupol commanders would go on trial.
“Five superheroes have been exchanged for 55 of those who deserve neither compassion nor pity,” Zelenskiy said in a night-time address that welcomed the broader release as “a victory for the country”.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday 55 of its servicemen had been returned in the largest prisoner exchange with Ukraine since the start of the war.
Russia said the fighters — from Russia’s armed forces and its proxies in the Russian-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine — had been transported to Russia by a military plane and were undergoing health checks.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2022