KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returned from a visit to Turkey on Saturday, bringing back five former commanders of the Ukrainian garrison in Mariupol despite a prisoner exchange last year in which the men were supposed to remain in Turkey.
Russia immediately condemned the release of the two men. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey had violated the terms of the prisoner exchange and had not informed Moscow.
The commanders, who have a reputation as heroes in Ukraine, last year led the defense of the port, the largest city Russia captured in its conquest.
Thousands of civilians were killed inside Mariupol when Russian forces destroyed the city during a three-month siege.
The Ukrainian defenders held out in tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal steel mill, until Kiev finally ordered them to surrender in May last year.
Moscow released some of them in September in a prisoner exchange brokered by Ankara, with terms that required the commanders to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
“We will come home from Turkey and bring our heroes home,” said Zelensky, who met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks in Istanbul on Friday.
“Ukrainian soldiers Denis Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Aleh Khomenko and Denis Schliha. They will finally be with their relatives,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.
“No one told us about this. According to the agreements, these ringleaders were to stay on the territory of Turkey until the end of the conflict,” Peskov told the RIA news agency.
Peskov said the release was the result of intense pressure from Turkey’s NATO allies in the run-up to the military alliance’s summit next week, during which Ukraine hopes to get a positive signal about its future membership.
In his remarks, Zelensky offered no explanation as to why the commanders were now allowed to go home. The Turkish Communications Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zelensky posted a one-minute video of him and other officials shaking hands and embracing the smiling leaders before they boarded a Czech plane together.
Many Ukrainians applauded the news on social media.
“Finally! Best News Ever. Congratulations Brothers!” Major Maxim Zorin, who is now fighting in eastern Ukraine, said on the messaging app Telegram.
(Reporting by Olenna Harmash; Editing by Peter Graf and Ron Popeski)
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