Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s office, (C) talk with Ukrainian fighters released Wednesday in a prisoner swap with Russia. Photo courtesy of Andriy Yermak/Twitter
Sept. 21 (UPI) — Russia and Ukraine conducted a surprise prisoner swap on Wednesday involving nearly 300 people, officials said.
The prisoner swap saw Ukraine receive 215 of its citizens with Russia receiving 55 of its captured soldiers as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician, businessman and staunch ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This is clearly a victory for our state, for our entire society,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation announcing the prisoner swap on Wednesday. “And most importantly, for 215 families who will be able to see their loved ones in safety.”
Zelensky said they exchanged Medvedchuk — who was captured by Ukrainian forces mid-April after he escaped house arrest where he was being held on charges of treason — for 200 Ukrainians, including woman and expecting mothers.
Ukraine gave Russia 55 of its people for five commanders Zelensky called “superheroes” who lead troops in the entrenched fight over the southern port city of Mariupol.
Zelensky thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for mediating as well as Saudi Arabia, which announced earlier in the day that it had secured the release of 10 foreign soldiers who had fought alongside Ukrainian when they were captured by Russia.
The fighters consisted of five Britons, two Americans, a Moroccan, a Swede and a Croatian, Zelensky said.
“The enemy sentenced them to a long prison term or the death penalty. We saved their lives,” he said. “All of them will return home through the mediation of Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi officials with the foreign ministry said in a statement that they had negotiated the exchange between Russia and Ukraine, and were “facilitating procedures for their safe return to their respective countries.”
Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s office, said the foreign fighters were already in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Among the 10 were Alex Drueke, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huyn, a former U.S. marine, Reps. Terri Sewell and Robert Aderholt said in a joint statement. The two Alabama residents had been fighting as volunteers in Ukraine.
Drueke and Huynh disappeared together after their platoon came under heavy fire, their families said. They were captured near Kharkiv on June 9.
In a tweet, British Prime Minister Liz Truss called the return of her citizens “hugely welcome news,” that ends months of uncertainty for their families.
Member of British parliament Robert Jenrick identified one of the released Britons on Twitter as Aiden Aslin, who had been sentenced to death by a Russian proxy court in Eastern Ukraine. He had been accused of attempting to overthrow the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends,” Truss said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that they look forward to reuniting the released Americans with their families while encouraging others who may consider traveling to Ukraine to fight the Russians to find other ways to support Ukraine’s cause.
“Americans who travel to Ukraine to participate in the fighting there face significant risks and the United States cannot guarantee their safety,” he said in a statement. “We encourage U.S. citizens to devote their energies towards the many other opportunities that exist to help the country of Ukraine and its people.”
The release came after Putin announced plans to call up roughly 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine, in an attempt to reverse recent Ukrainian gains.
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