Russia, Ukraine trade POWs with no new word of passengers on downed plane

Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners Wednesday, exactly a week after Russia accused Ukraine of shooting down a military plane that Moscow claimed was carrying dozens of Ukrainian POWs being transported to a swap later that day.

Ukraine has not denied shooting down the aircraft, an Ilyushin Il-76, but says that Russia has provided no evidence that POWs were onboard. The incident raised concerns that future exchanges of POWs would be suspended.

But in a surprising announcement Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that 195 Russian soldiers had been exchanged for “exactly” the same number of Ukrainian soldiers.

“The freed service members will be transported by aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ military transport aviation to Moscow for treatment and rehabilitation,” the ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, appearing to contradict Moscow’s numbers, Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said Wednesday that 207 Ukrainian prisoners were released, including 27 officers and fighters captured during the battle of Azovstal, the steel plant in the city of Mariupol, which Russia now occupies.

At least 36 of the Ukrainians released suffered from serious injuries or illnesses, the coordination headquarters said.

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Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, confirmed the swap, posting pictures of released soldiers wrapped in Ukrainian flags on Telegram.

“This is the second major exchange after a long break. And we continue the work and fulfillment of the president’s task — to return everyone,” Yermak wrote. “We have a big mission, many of our people still remain in captivity, we are working to get them home … thanks to everyone who waited and came back. Ukrainians are the highest value.”

Yermak added that those released included soldiers, as well as police officers and members of the national guard and police, seized in Mariupol, Snake Island, Kherson and Kharkiv.

The swap proceeded without any new information about who precisely was on board the Russian military plane shot down last week over Russia’s western Belgorod region, near the Ukrainian border.

Russia said all 74 people on board were killed, including 65 Ukrainian POWs, six crew members and three other individuals.

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The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of committing “a terrorist act” and requested an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting in connection with the crash. The session was held in New York, but no new information emerged then, either.

“The attack on the plane was a deliberate and conscious action,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. “The terrorist attack clearly demonstrates the inability of the Kyiv regime to negotiate.”

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that the destruction of the jet would interfere with future exchanges.

“Will this stop exchanges or not? We won’t stop exchanges, we need to collect our guys,” Putin said in a televised political meeting related to the March presidential election, in which he is seeking a fifth term.

Putin also asserted Wednesday that the plane was shot down by an American Patriot air defense system, and he made reference to potential plans for a demilitarized zone that could protect Russian territory from Western-supplied long-range missiles.

The United States has prohibited Ukraine from using its donated weapons to hit targets on Russian soil. The plane was close enough to Ukraine that it could have been shot down with any number of weapons available to the Ukrainian military.

The mention of a demilitarized zone suggested that Putin wants to cement control over Ukrainian territory that his forces now occupy. In violation of international law, he has declared four Ukrainian regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — to be annexed to Russia, in addition to Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

“This line should be at such a distance from our territory that would ensure security, having in mind long-range guns of foreign manufacture, which the Ukrainian authorities use to shell peaceful cities,” Putin said.

Zelensky has pledged that Ukraine will expel Russia’s forces from all of its sovereign territory.

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