On 3 January, Ukraine returned 230 military personnel and civilians from Russian captivity in a prisoner exchange, which was the largest since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram messenger.
This exchange took place after a months-long pause. The last POW swap occurred in August 2023. Back then, 22 Ukrainian soldiers returned home.
The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said today’s exchange, on 3 January, was the largest exchange by number of defenders returned since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. In total, 230 Ukrainian prisoners returned home:
- 130 POWs from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (including 14 from the Territorial Defense Forces and 14 from the Navy)
- 55 from the National Guard
- 38 from the State Border Guard Service
- 1 from the National Police
Some of the POWs were among the 2,500 defenders of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, who had surrendered in May 2022 after a three-month siege of the coastal city under the guarantees of the ICRC, UN, and Russia.
Ukraine also released six civilians who were illegally deprived of their liberty.
Among the returnees were those with official prisoner-of-war status confirmed through the International Committee of the Red Cross (182 people). Some Ukrainian servicemen were considered missing in action with “search for person” status (48). Most of those released were men (225), with five women.
“Today, despite all the challenges, there is good news for the first time in a long while. There has been a long pause in exchanges but no pause in negotiations regarding exchanges. We use every opportunity to try all mediation options. We raise the issue of returning our prisoners at every international meeting. We will continue working to return everyone,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening video address.
The United Arab Emirates facilitated the exchange. The Coordination Headquarters thanked the United Arab Emirates “for active participation in implementing this exchange.”
The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, said that 2023 has seen the start of 49 prisoner exchanges. He added that 2,828 defenders are now home.
The head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Defense Ministry, Kyrylo Budanov, was also present during the exchange. He said that returning Ukrainian defenders was “very difficult.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on 19 December 2023 at a press conference that although the prisoner exchange process has become more difficult, “the track will open up.”
Earlier, a representative of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Petro Yatsenko, said to Politico in December that Russia has suspended prisoner exchanges in an attempt to influence society and create the impression that the Ukrainian authorities are not working on the issue.
The previous largest exchange was on 21 September 2022. 215 military personnel were released, including 108 Azov battalion fighters and ten foreigners who fought on the side of Ukraine’s Armed Forces: citizens of the USA, UK, Morocco, Sweden, and Croatia.
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