Russia and Ukraine have carried out a high-profile prisoner swap, involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners, marking the largest exchange since the start of the Ukrainian conflict.
As part of the exchange, Russia freed 215 Ukrainians, including commander of the Azov battalion and 107 more Azov members who fought in the port city of Mariupul and surrendered to Russian-backed forces months ago.
More than 2,000 soldiers, many from the Azov unit, marched out of the Azovstal steel plant’s twisted wreckage into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the exchange — which involved help from Turkey and Saudi Arabia — had been planned long ago and involved stretched-out and difficult negotiations to reach an agreement.
Zelensky thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said the Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and released pro-Moscow Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk. The 68-year-old oligarch was head of the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party, before the government suspended the party.
The deal included the release of 10 people of American, British, Moroccan, Swedish, and Croatian nationalities.
Five British citizens who had been held in Ukraine by Russian-backed forces were released, including Aiden Aslin, who had been sentenced to death in June for being a mercenary and helping to violently overthrow the government of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Among the freed foreign prisoners were two US citizens, Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, who had been captured in June while fighting in eastern Ukraine, where they had traveled to to support Ukrainian troops.
Public broadcaster Suspline said the exchange had happened near the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. But the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia to head home from the Middle Eastern country.