Russia and Ukraine complete ‘major’ prisoner exchange after mysterious plane crash

Jan 31, 2024, 11:51 AM

Ukrainian prisoners of war returning home after a swap at an unknown location in Ukraine, January 3...

Ukrainian prisoners of war returning home after a swap at an unknown location in Ukraine, January 31, 2024. Mandatory Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

(CNN) — Russia and Ukraine have exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war, in the first such swap since the deadly crash of a Russian military plane that Moscow claimed was carrying 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 207 Ukrainian service members were returned on Wednesday, while the Russian Defense Ministry said 195 Russian military personnel had been received.

“Ours are at home. 207 guys,” Zelensky said, adding that almost half of those returned were “defenders of Mariupol,” the southern Ukrainian city that was brutally besieged in the early weeks of the war.

Zelensky said 50 prisoner swaps had now taken place since Russia launched its full-scale invasion nearly two years ago, through which Ukraine had brought 3035 soldiers home. “We will do everything to return each and every one of them. We have not forgotten about anyone. We are looking for every single name,” he said.

Wednesday’s exchange was the first since the mysterious crash of a Russian IL-76 plane on January 24 in Russia’s Belgorod region, which neighbors eastern Ukraine.

Moscow claimed the plane was transporting dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, while Kyiv said it was carrying Russian missiles to be used in further strikes on Ukraine.

Both sides acknowledged a prisoner exchange had been planned for the day of the crash, but Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (DI), told CNN that Ukraine had not received notification that the prisoners would be flown into the region, rather than transported by road or rail.

Russia initially failed to produce visual evidence to back up its claims that soldiers had perished in the crash. Ukraine later said it had intelligence suggesting only five bodies were delivered from the crash site to a morgue in Belgorod, which Yusov said matched the number of crew members on the plane. A number of Ukrainian officials accused Russia of falsely suggesting that Ukraine had inadvertently killed dozens of its own soldiers.

CNN is not able to verify independently claims by either side.

The 207 released soldiers did not include any of the 65 Ukrainian POWs named in a list published by Russian media of those allegedly killed in the IL-76 plane crash, a representative of Ukraine’s Coordination Center for the Treatment of POWs, Petro Yatsenko, told CNN.

Kyiv officials said last Friday that the names of the 65 POWs in Russia’s list tallied with the list of POWs scheduled to be returned to Ukraine as part of the exchange planned on the day of the crash. But Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said there was still no reliable information as to who might have been on board the downed Russian plane.

Speaking after Wednesday’s prisoner exchange, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the IL-76 plane had been downed by a US Patriot missile system.

“The plane was shot down – this has already been established with certainty – by the American Patriot system. This has already been established through examination,” Putin said in a meeting focused on his election campaign. He called on international authorities to conduct their own investigations.

Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for the downing of the plane. While the Il-76 plane would have been within the range of a Patriot deployed close to Ukraine’s northern border, Ukraine has consistently said it will not use Western-donated missiles beyond its own internationally-recognized territory.

Putin stressed that Russia would not halt prisoner exchanges despite the plane crash.

“We need to pick up our guys,” he said. “We have thousands, they [Ukrainians] have several dozen, maybe hundreds [of POWs]. But we will still take our guys if the Ukrainian side is ready for this, and they give a signal that they are ready.”

Neither Ukraine’s nor Russia’s statements on Wednesday’s prisoner exchange mentioned the crash.

The head of Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, said the swap was “the second major exchange after a long break.” Alongside the defenders of Mariupol, he said the returned prisoners included “soldiers who were at Azovstal, Zmiinyi Snake Island, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Kherson and Sumy directions.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the Russian soldiers released would be transported by military transport aircraft to Moscow for treatment and rehabilitation.

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Russia and Ukraine complete ‘major’ prisoner exchange after mysterious plane crash