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Ukraine announces largest prisoner exchange yet, including Mariupol fighters

June 29, 2022 Updated Wed., June 29, 2022 at 4:35 p.m.

By Michael Schwirtz, Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko New York Times

Ukrainian officials announced the largest prisoner exchange since Russia’s invasion, saying 144 soldiers were being returned to Ukraine, including dozens who defended Mariupol, a southern port city that became a symbol of Russian repression and Ukrainian defiance.

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 the same number of Russian and pro-Russian forces were returned in the deal.

More than 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered in mid-May after holding out for months in bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol. Their surrender was carefully negotiated between Russia, Ukraine and international mediators and marked the end of one of the war’s most brutal battles.

While Ukraine and Russia have exchanged prisoners on several occasions – including 17 Ukrainians returned in an exchange announced this week – the fate of the garrison from Mariupol has been among the most sensitive issues of the war.

When the Ukrainian government issued the surrender directive, it vowed to do all it could to ensure they would be returned home.

The Kremlin propaganda machine had long sought to use the far-right origins of the Azov regiment, which played a lead role in the defense of the city, as proof of its false claim that the Ukrainian state has been infected with Nazism.

In a statement, Ukraine’s main intelligence directorate said that 95 defenders of the Azovstal steel factory, including 43 from the Azov regiment, had been released during the exchange. Most of the exchanged soldiers had been seriously injured, the statement said, including some that have fractures, burns and amputated limbs.

The commanders of the Azov regiment and a marine infantry unit who fought at Azovstal have been moved to Moscow, where they are being held at the notorious Lefortovo Prison. Among those being detained are Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, the head of the Azov regiment at Azovstal, and Capt. Svyatoslav Palamar, his deputy, along with Maj. Serhiy Volyna, commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade.

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