Ukraine announced the largest exchange of prisoners of war since Russia began its offensive in February, returning to Ukraine with 144 soldiers, including dozens of soldiers who fought during the Russian siege of Mariupol, a southern port city. Defended against, which became a symbol of Russian repression and Ukrainian. disobedience.
While the exchange has been shrouded in secrecy, Denis Pushilin, the head of Russian proxy forces in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, said that 144 Russian and proxy forces were returned home in exchange for 144 Ukrainians.
More than 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered in mid-May after spending months in bunkers under the giant Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol. His surrender was carefully negotiated between Russia, Ukraine and international mediators, and marked the end of one of the most brutal battles of the war.
While Ukraine and Russia have exchanged prisoners on several occasions during the war – including 17 Ukrainians who returned in an exchange announced earlier this week – the fate of the Mariupol garrison has been one of the most sensitive issues of the war.
When the Ukrainian government issued a surrender directive to end the standoff, the government vowed to do everything it could to ensure that they would be returned home.
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The Kremlin propaganda machine had long sought to use the far-right origins of the Azov regiment, which played a major role in the city’s defense, as proof of its false claim that the Ukrainian state had been infected with Nazism. .
in that speech Announcing the Russian offensive, Mr Putin promised to “prosecute those who have defamed Ukraine, as well as those who have committed several bloody crimes against civilians”.
After the surrender of the last garrison at Mariupol, some Russian lawmakers called for the death penalty and even proposed a ban on any exchange of prisoners that would allow members of the Azov regiment to be free. will allow.
In a statement, Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate said that 95 defenders of the Azovstal Steel Factory, including 43 of the Azov Regiment, were released during the exchange. Most of the soldiers exchanged were seriously injured, including some fractures, burns and amputations, the statement said.
The exchange involved a husband and wife, both soldiers with the Azov Regiment, according to Ukraine’s chief of defense intelligence, Kyrilo Budanov. The husband was captured in Azovstal. His wife was earlier caught at a different location. they have two children.
“The children were living without their parents,” said Mr. Budanov. “We insisted that the Russians give it to them.” Both were part of the exchange.
According to Mr Budanov, commanders of the Azov regiment and a marine unit fighting at Azovstal have been taken to Moscow, where they are being held in the infamous Lefortovo prison. Those taken into custody include Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko, chief of the Azov regiment in Azovstal, and Major Serhi Volina, commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, along with his deputy Captain Svyatoslav Palmar.
“They say they are conducting investigative activities,” Mr Budanov said, referring to Russian officials. “But we understand that they are undergoing recruitment – instructing them to take the Russian position on these events. This is war, you understand.”
Mr Pushilin, the head of the Russian proxy forces in the Donetsk region, said some of the soldiers assigned to Kyiv were members of a “nationalist battalion” and were in very poor condition. “They have suffered serious injuries, some have amputated limbs and others have complications,” he said.
The reaction of some military bloggers in Russia was swift and angry, calling the exchange a betrayal.
Yuri Podolyaka, a popular pro-Russian blogger, said it was “spit in the faces of soldiers on the front line and residents of Donbass.”
“If it’s called ‘denazification’ of Ukraine, it probably wasn’t worth starting,” he said in his channel on the social messaging app Telegram.