By Valentyn Ogirenko and Aziz El Yaakoubi
KIEV/RIAD (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed top Ukrainian commanders, including those who led the dogged defense of Mariupol, who were freed by Russia as part of a prisoner exchange involving nearly 300 people, including foreigners.
Under the terms of the deal, which Turkey helped broker, 215 Ukrainians, most captured after the port city fell, were released on Wednesday. In return, Ukraine sent back 55 pro-Moscow Russians and Ukrainians.
Ten foreigners were also freed after mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The timing and size of the exchange came as a surprise. Earlier in the day, Putin had announced a partial deployment of troops in Russia in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists had said last month that the Mariupol commanders would stand trial.
“Five superheroes have been exchanged for 55 of those who deserve neither compassion nor pity,” Zelenskiy said in an evening speech that hailed the broader liberation as “a victory for the country”.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday that 55 of its troops had been returned in the biggest prisoner exchange with Ukraine since the war began.
The five commanders will remain in Turkey until the end of the war, and Zelenskiy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help after what he said was a long and difficult struggle to secure release.
The capture of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov was a strategic prize for Russia, though its forces reduced the port city to a wasteland littered with bodies after nearly two months of siege and heavy bombardment.
Three other Britons, two Americans, a Croatian and a Swede were also released. The five UK prisoners arrived in the country, the non-profit Presidium Network reported, according to the BBC, on Thursday.
(Reporting by Valentyn Ogirenko in Kiev, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Riyadh and David Ljunggren and Ottawa)