Russia, Ukraine exchange hundreds of prisoners in largest release of war

More than 470 prisoners of war return home on both sides after the swap deals stalled in the latter half of 2023.

Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs)
Ukrainian prisoners of war are released in a swap with Russia [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

Russia and Ukraine have exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war in the biggest single release of captives since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022.

Ukrainian officials said on Wednesday that 230 of its prisoners were released while Russia said 248 of its soldiers were returned after mediation by the United Arab Emirates.

While the two sides have gone through several exchanges during the war, swap deals stalled in the latter half of last year. The latest exchange was the first in almost five months.

“More than 200 of our soldiers and civilians have been returned from Russian captivity,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced in a post on the Telegram messaging app that included a video of uniformed men celebrating.

Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs)
The prisoner swap on January 3, 2024, was the largest of the Russia-Uraine war [Head of Ukraine’s Presidential Office Andriy Yermak via Telegram/Handout via Reuters]

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, said 230 Ukrainian prisoners, including six civilians, had been released, marking what he said was the 49th exchange between the two sides.

Kyiv said this was the largest documented swap of troops so far.

Some of the Ukrainians had been held since 2022. Among them were some who fought in milestone battles for Ukraine’s Snake Island and port city of Mariupol.

The Russian Ministry of Defence said 248 of its soldiers had been returned after “complex” negotiations by the UAE. Russian officials offered no other details of the exchange.

Attacks on Belgorod

Also on Wednesday, Russia said it shot down 12 missiles fired at one of its southern regions bordering Ukraine.

The governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said the situation “continues to remain tense” after Ukraine launched repeated missile and drone attacks.

While there have been no reports on casualty numbers from the latest attack, Gladkov said authorities were evacuating residents near possibly unexploded munitions with bomb disposal units called in to evaluate the danger.

Defence Ministry technicians were working on disposing of an unexploded projectile, and about 600 residents from 323 houses within a 500-metre (550-yard) radius had been evacuated, he said.

Gladkov added that several other villages also came under fire in Wednesday’s attack and a power line was knocked out.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said Ukraine fired six Tochka-U ballistic missiles and six guided missiles from a Vilkha heavy multiple rocket launcher.

Ukraine has escalated its attacks on Belgorod over the New Year period after Russia launched some of its most significant attacks on Ukraine since the war began.

On Tuesday, Kyiv said Moscow had launched more than 300 attack drones and missiles of various kinds across Ukraine since Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised that Kyiv’s attacks on Belgorod would “not go unpunished”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies