Tearful reunions as Russia and Ukraine exchange hundreds of prisoners

Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war (POW) on Wednesday after intense negotiations mediated by the United Arab Emirates.

The exchange was the first in nearly five months and is the largest documented swap between the countries since Russia launched a full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

Ukrainian authorities said that 230 Ukrainians, 224 soldiers and six civilians, returned home, while Russia’s Defense Ministry said that 248 Russian servicemen have been freed under the deal sponsored by the United Arab Emirates.

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Two Ukrainian prisoners of war hug after a swap, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine

Ukrainian prisoners of war react after a swap, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine. ( Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

A video released by Ukrainian authorities shows tearful Ukrainian soldiers draped in their nation’s blue and yellow flag hugging and embracing their fellow POWs at an undisclosed location. They could be seen filing off a bus, singing the national anthem and shouting the patriotic greeting “Glory to Ukraine.”

Most Ukrainians, but not all, appeared to be in good health, according to Reuters. One returnee shouted, “We are home! You didn’t forget us!”

The Russian Ministry of Defense released a similar video of returning uniformed prisoners arriving in Belgorod on buses. “I’ll be home in five hours, roughly speaking, that’s going to be a joy,” said one unnamed man.

The UAE’s Foreign Ministry attributed the successful swap to the “strong friendly relations between the UAE and both the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine, which were supported by sustained calls at the highest levels.” 

The UAE has maintained close economic ties with Moscow despite Western sanctions and pressure on Russia over the last two years. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Middle East last month.

A group of freed Ukrainian POWs celebrate after being released

Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war Wednesday, the first in nearly five months and the largest swap between the countries since the war started. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

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In a video post on X, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the news of the returning soldiers and said that many of them had been missing.

“Initially, there was no information about some of them being held captive,” Zelenskyy said. 

“They were considered missing in action. It is critical to keep hope alive. Prisoner swaps have been on hold for a long time, but negotiations have not ceased for a single moment. We are seizing every opportunity, attempting every mediation format, and raising the issue at any international meeting that may be helpful.”

“The more Russians we capture, the more effective the negotiations regarding swaps will be,” he said in his video address.

Several Ukrainian prisoners of war hug after a swap, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine

Ukrainian prisoners of war react after a swap, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

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Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, thanked Putin and the military and intelligence services for their efforts in the exchange.

Ukraine and Russia have held many prisoner swaps in the months after Russia’s invasion, but the rate slowed drastically in 2023.

The prisoner swap came a day after Russia launched hypersonic ballistic missiles at Ukraine’s two largest cities, leaving at least five people dead and at least 130 injured, officials said. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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