KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner exchange early Thursday, ending months of efforts to free dozens of Ukrainian fighters defending a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege. It was the end. In exchange, Ukraine released a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and 55 other prisoners.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his government had freed 215 Ukrainian and foreign nationals from Russian custody with the help of Turkish and Saudi mediation efforts. He said that there were many soldiers and officers who faced death penalty in the Russian occupied territory.

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Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on what was the largest prisoner exchange during the nearly seven-month war.

In all, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one person – pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from detention in Ukraine several days before the Russian invasion on February 24, but was recaptured in April. He faces life in prison for treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization to mediate coal purchases for the Russian-backed Donetsk Republic in eastern Ukraine.

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Medvedevchuk got to know Putin while serving as chief of staff to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. The Russian leader is godfather to Medvedev’s daughter. His detention sparked heated exchanges between authorities in Moscow and Kyiv.

Medvedchuk heads the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition Platform for Life party, the largest opposition group in Ukraine’s parliament. The Ukrainian government has suspended the party’s activity. Putin has repeatedly spoken of Medvedevchuk as a victim of political repression.

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“It is not a pity for real fighters to abandon Medvedev,” Zelensky said in his video speech last night. “He has passed all the investigative procedures provided for by law. Ukraine has obtained from him everything that is necessary to establish the truth in the framework of the criminal proceedings.

In another exchange, Ukraine secured the release of five commanders who led Ukraine’s release of 55 Russian prisoners in defense of the Azostall steel plant in Mariupol, Zelinsky said.

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More than 2,000 defenders, many of them in the Azov Regiment, walked out of the twisted wreckage of the Azovstal steel plant into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.

Five leaders, including Azov regiment commanders Denis Prokopenko and Svyatoslav Palmar, are in Turkey, where they will remain under the protection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of a “full security” deal until the end of the war, Zelinsky said. .

The complex prisoner swap also led to the release of 10 foreigners, including five British nationals and two US military ex-servicemen, who had fought with Ukrainian forces. U.S. and Saudi officials said they were released by Russian-backed separatists as part of Saudi Arabia’s mediation.

A video posted on the BBC’s news website on Thursday shows the two British men released, Aidan Aslan and Sean Pinner, speaking inside the plane.

“We just want to let everyone know that we’re out of the danger zone now and we’re going home to our families,” Aslan said in the video, as Pinner added: “Our By the skin of the teeth.”

The BBC has reported that the two men have arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, along with a third British prisoner, John Harding. He was accompanied by a group of Saudi officials, it said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat”, but added that “much remains to be done to reduce the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine.” is,” said his spokesperson. The UN chief reiterated the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and would continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The exchange has drawn angry comments from some nationalist observers in Russia. Igor Strelkov, a Russian officer who led Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbass when a conflict erupted there in 2014, called the exchange an act of treason, saying it was “worse than a crime.” , is worse than a mistake, it is simply sheer. Stupidity or sabotage.”

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Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.

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