Qatar hails mediation ‘milestone’ as it hosts freed Ukrainian, Russian kids

Twenty reunited Ukrainian and Russian families are in Doha to receive support as part of Qatar’s ongoing mediation efforts.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says 16 Ukrainian children who “had previously been forcibly deported” to Russia after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine are recovering in Qatar following their release.

In a statement on X late on Wednesday, Zelenskyy said the group was freed and reunited with their families thanks to Qatari mediation efforts that have helped bring back dozens of children taken during the 27-month war.

He added that the children and their relatives were currently in the Gulf state “for medical, mental, and social recovery”.

Zelenskyy’s statement came days after Qatar said 20 Ukrainian and Russian families had arrived in the Qatari capital to be provided healthcare and support with the ongoing mediation efforts to reunite families.

They were accompanied by Russian and Ukrainian officials who also met Qatari mediators.

On Wednesday, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, announced a deal with Ukraine to exchange almost 50 children displaced by the invasion.

“For the first time in a face-to-face format, we held talks with the Ukrainian side. Twenty-nine children are due to go to Ukraine and 19 to Russia,” Lvova-Belova said.

But the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, later declined to confirm the information, telling the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency that the two countries “don’t have any direct communication on this case”.

‘Upscale the process’

Reporting from Doha, Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra said Qatar’s mediation efforts began last year when Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani visited Russia and Ukraine, where he was asked to mediate the family reunification process.

Ukraine accuses Russia of illegally taking more than 19,000 of its children since the start of the 2022 invasion, of whom fewer than 400 have been returned. Russia denies that charge, saying it has transferred children for their safety away from warzones.

The fate of the children has been highly sensitive in Ukraine since the war began. Some of the children’s parents have been killed while others have been separated from carers by the fast-moving front lines at the start of the invasion. Some were living in Ukrainian orphanages in areas Russia then occupied.

At an upscale Doha hotel on Wednesday, Qatari International Cooperation Minister Lolwah al-Khater met visiting beneficiaries of the past exchanges.

“Today was a milestone for us in Qatar in this mediation process,” she told Al Jazeera. “We had 20 reunified families from both Ukraine and Russia with a high representation from both governments as well. We hope to upscale this process and to continue.”

Asked whether this could be a starting point to bring the warring sides together to discuss political issues, al-Khater said the focus of the mediation efforts from the beginning has been humanitarian matters.

“From there, we can discuss other portfolios as well,” al-Khater noted. “The humanitarian and the political are very much intertwined, so we’re hopeful that this will open also more venues in the future.”

Lubinets told AFP his delegation and Qatari mediators had discussed, in addition to the return of Ukrainian children, the issue of Ukrainian civilian detainees held in Russia and the “potential role of Qatar to be mediator between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on this”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies