‘An Easter exchange’: 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war freed

Ukrainian official confirms an exchange of POWs on the day Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and Russia celebrate Easter.

Ukraine pow swap
Ukrainian prisoners of war pose for a picture after the swap, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine [The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets via Telegram/Handout via Reuters]

More than 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war have been released and returned home in a “great Easter exchange”, a senior Ukrainian official has said, as Orthodox Ukrainians marked the holiday for a second time since Moscow unleashed its brutal full-scale war last February.

Celebrations on Sunday were subdued due to security risks, with a curfew barring the faithful from customary all-night services. Even so, Ukrainian authorities and ordinary people shared messages of hope, linking the story of Jesus’s resurrection to their longing for peace and a Ukrainian victory.

Dozens of families had special reasons to rejoice, as presidential adviser Andriy Yermak announced that 130 soldiers, sailors, border guards and others captured by Moscow were on their way back home following a “big Easter prisoner exchange”.

Yermak said in a Telegram post that those released included troops who fought near Bakhmut, the eastern mining city that has for months been the focus of Russia’s grinding offensive.

“The lives of our people are the highest value for us,” Yermak said, adding that Kyiv’s goal was to bring back all remaining prisoners of war (POWs).

The prisoners appear to have been held by Russia’s powerful Wagner Group of mercenaries.

The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was shown telling the prisoners that they would be passed back to Ukrainian forces to mark Orthodox Easter in a video posted on Telegram by his press service.

“I hope you don’t fall back into our hands,” an armed Wagner soldier was heard telling the Ukrainian prisoners before they were ordered into a truck, some loading packs of water bottles.

Some of the men were seen being carried on stretchers by their comrades who walked in a line down a muddy road. A man standing on a tank was seen holding a white flag.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have held regular prisoner exchanges since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

It was not clear how many Russians were sent back the other way.

The exchange was the second large prisoner swap in the past week. On Monday, Russia and Ukraine said they carried out a major prisoner swap, with 106 Russian prisoners of war being freed in exchange for 100 Ukrainians.

Ukraine said on Friday that it had also retrieved the bodies of 82 of its soldiers from Russian-controlled territory.

Zelenskyy and Putin make Easter addresses

In an Easter video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s all-out war “cannot erase us”.

“Belief in it unites us all. Always, but especially today – on Easter, which has always been a family holiday for Ukrainians, a day of warmth, hope and great unity. The war could not erase us, our values, our traditions, our holidays, and the most important things they symbolise,” Zelenskyy said.

Both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which Kyiv claims has ties with Russia, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) held Easter services at the historic Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra monastery in the capital.

Russian President Vladimir Putin marked Orthodox Easter by applauding the “strengthening” role of the church for society and youth, while the country’s top bishop supported the offensive in Ukraine.

“I would like to express my profound gratitude for your tireless and selfless work in preserving the enduring historical, spiritual, moral and family values, by educating and enlightening youth,” said Putin after taking part in the liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

Easter is the most important celebration in the Orthodox calendar in both Russia and Ukraine.

In the past, Russia’s top bishop, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has justified the country’s offensive in Ukraine by insisting Russians and Ukrainians are brothers who have been separated by force, particularly by the West.

The Ukrainian government has countered that view, denouncing the conflict led by the Kremlin and also pursuing investigations and prosecutions aimed at the church and priests deemed close to Moscow.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies