Russia and Ukraine exchange hundreds of war prisoners

This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service shows Ukrainian former prisoners of war reacting as they descend from a bus after their exchange, amid Russia's military invasion on Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war on January 31, just a week after Moscow said Kyiv had shot down a plane carrying dozens of captured Ukrainian soldiers. PHOTO | UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE | AFP

Russia and Ukraine traded hundreds of prisoners of war on Wednesday, just a week after Moscow said Kyiv had shot down a plane carrying captured Ukrainian soldiers to an exchange.

The crash of a Russian military cargo plane near the border with Ukraine — which Russia said killed 65 Ukrainian POWs — had thrown doubt on future prisoner swaps between the two sides.

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President Vladimir Putin said it was “obvious” Ukraine shot it down, and on Wednesday claimed Kyiv’s forces used a US Patriot system to do so.

“This has already been established by forensics,” Putin said in a televised appearance.

Despite the tension, both sides made simultaneous announcements hailing the latest agreement on Wednesday to free more than 400 people captured during the course of the two-year war.

Russia’s defence ministry said 195 of its soldiers were freed, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 207 people — both soldiers and civilians — had returned to Ukraine.

“Our people are back. 207 of them. We return them home no matter what,” Zelensky said in a social media post.

  • ‘We will release all our people’ –
    In his daily evening address, Zelensky added that a total of over 3,000 Ukrainian POWs have now returned home.

“They have different ranks and experience. All are equally important for Ukraine,” Zelensky stressed.

The exchange was brokered by the United Arab Emirates — which has played a role in several previous swaps — Moscow said.

Ukraine said the youngest soldier returning home was 20, while the oldest was 61.

The freed Ukrainians include those who fought in Mariupol and on Snake Island — a scrubby rock in the Black Sea that secured worldwide fame when the Ukrainians stationed there issued an expletive-laden radio message to Russian attackers.

  • 50th swap –
    The flurry of statements and photos announcing the swap contrasted sharply with the rhetoric surrounding last week’s crash.
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Zelensky has accused Moscow of “playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners”, while Moscow says Ukraine committed a “terrorist act”.

Uncertainty remains after the Russian plane crashed in a fireball in the western Belgorod region on January 24.

Putin claimed last week Kyiv knew dozens of its soldiers could have been on board, an accusation Ukraine has fiercely rejected.

Ukraine has not outright denied Moscow’s version of events, but questioned whether captured Ukrainian soldiers were actually on board and said Moscow never told it in advance that POWs would be flown near the border.

Officials in Kyiv have called for Moscow to publish photos of the dead POWs’ bodies or provide other evidence to back up its claims.

Wednesday’s exchange — which took place exactly a week after the plane was shot down — was the 50th swap between the two sides since Russia invaded in February 2022, Kyiv said.

Ukraine said more than 3,000 POWs have now been returned. A similar number of Russians have also been freed, with most exchanges based on a one-for-one format.

Thousands who have been captured or surrendered throughout the war are thought to still be in captivity.

  • Strategic town –
    On the battlefield, both sides reported ongoing fights along the sprawling frontline.

“The enemy has not stopped trying to surround Avdiivka,” Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for Ukraine’s army, said in an interview with state TV.

Russian forces have been trying to capture the strategic eastern town — which Ukrainians see as a symbol of resistance — for months.

Putin appeared to confirm Russia was moving in, claiming Moscow’s troops had captured 19 houses on the town’s outskirts.

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Its forces fired a barrage of drones and missiles across Ukraine overnight in another round of aerial bombardment.

US envoy Victoria Nuland visited Kyiv on Wednesday to underline the White House’s support, despite lawmakers in Washington stalling on providing further military aid for Ukraine.

She said she was confident that “Putin is going to get some nice surprises on the battlefield and that Ukraine will make some very strong success” as it tries to revive its counter-offensive.

Kyiv is hoping for a breakthrough this week over unlocking 50 billion euros ($54.2 billion) of aid from the EU.

EU leaders will meet on Thursday, seeking to reach a final agreement over a massive four-year financial package that was blocked by Hungary last year.

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