Ukrainian and Russian forces have exchanged prisoners, in what Ukraine said was the first soldier-for-soldier swap since Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, ordered troops into the neighbouring country late last month.
“Following an order from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the first fully-fledged exchange of prisoners of war has taken place,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Facebook on Thursday.
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“In exchange for 10 captured occupiers we rescued 10 of our servicemen,” she said, referring to Russian and Ukrainian troops.
Vereshchuk also said 11 Russian civilian seamen rescued near the Black Sea port city of Odesa were exchanged for 19 Ukrainian civilian ship crew members held by Russia’s forces.
Tatiana Moskalkova, the Russian human rights ombudsman, confirmed both exchanges.
Russia’s foreign ministry said earlier this week that Moscow had completed two prisoner swaps since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Moskalkova said nine Russian prisoners were exchanged for the mayor of Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine captured by the Russian army.
After his release, Ivan Fyodorov said Russian forces had thrown him in a cell and pressured him for hours, while he heard people being tortured in neighbouring cells. He said they wanted him to resign so that a Russian-appointed “mayor” could take over his duties.
Vereshchuk on Wednesday confirmed the Melitopol swap but denied any others had taken place.
In a video address later on Thursday, Vereshchuk also said the Russians have taken 14 Ukrainian officials prisoner, mostly local politicians or city hall representatives, and demanded their release, saying that taking civilians captive was against international law.
Citing the testimony of Ukrainians released from Russian-occupied areas, Vereshchuk also accused Russian soldiers of torture and pledged to prosecute such crimes in The Hague.
“All members of the Russian military listening to my statement should know that we will not let anyone go unpunished,” she said.
The Russian invasion, which President Vladimir Putin calls a “special operation”, has killed thousands of people, sent 3.6 million abroad and driven more than half of Ukraine’s children from their homes, according to the United Nations.