By Valentyn Ogirenko and Aziz El Yaakoubi
KYIV/RIYADH, Sept. 21 (Reuters) – Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner swap on Wednesday, the largest since the start of the war, involving nearly 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders involved in a lengthy prisoner earlier this year. Ukrainian defense of Mariupol led year.
Among the released foreigners were two Britons and a Moroccan who were sentenced to death in June after being captured while fighting for Ukraine. Three other British, two Americans, a Croatian and a Swedish national were also released.
The timing and extent of the exchange came as a surprise, as Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced a partial troop mobilization earlier in the day in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists had also said last month that the Mariupol commanders would stand trial.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the exchange — which involved aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia — had been in preparation for some time and was subject to intense haggling. Under the terms of the deal, 215 Ukrainians – most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol – were released.
In return, Ukraine returned 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians and Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party accused of treason.
“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our entire society. And most importantly, 215 families can see their loved ones safe and at home,” Zelenskiy said in a video address.
“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.”
Zelenskiy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said five Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
Kiev had a long and difficult battle to secure the release of the five, he said.
Among them are Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion that did much of the fighting, and his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar. Serhiy Volynsky, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, was also released.
The three men had helped lead a stubborn resistance from the bunkers and tunnels beneath Mariupol’s mammoth steel mill for weeks before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered to Russian-backed forces in May.
“We are proud of what you have done for our nation, proud of all of you,” Zelenskiy said in a video call with the five released by his office.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow about the deal and why it had released men whom Russia-backed separatists said would face charges later this year.
Saudi Arabia brokered an arrangement whereby the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia. The mediation involved Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has close ties to Putin.
Among the detainees released were US citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in June during fighting in eastern Ukraine.
British Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun were also released, all of whom had been sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Large numbers of foreigners have traveled to Ukraine to fight since the Russian invasion on February 24.
The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia does not allow access to prisoners of war, adding that the UN had evidence that some had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could be war crimes.
Russia denies torture or other ill-treatment of prisoners of war.
(Reporting by Valentyn Ogirenko in Kiev, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh and David Ljunggren in Ottawa Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)