The leader of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine confirmed Thursday that President Vladimir Putin’s ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, and 55 soldiers have been handed over to Russia in a record prisoner exchange with Kyiv.
“56 people were released, 55 of them were military … Viktor Medvedchuk was also released from captivity,” Denis Pushlin told the state news agency RIA Novosti, referring to the former Ukrainian MP, who was accused of high treason.
Medvedchuk, 68, is one of Ukraine’s richest people and says Putin is the godfather of his youngest daughter.
He was arrested by Ukrainian special forces in mid-April after escaping from house arrest.
The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier that the released soldiers had been transferred to Russia and “in medical institutions of the Russian Defense Ministry”.
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In a statement, it claimed that the released prisoners are “at mortal danger” while they are in captivity.
Medvedchuk’s whereabouts are not mentioned.
The Defense Ministry released a video of what it said were the released soldiers, showing men in military uniforms disembarking from a plane during the night.
Following the exchange announced on Wednesday, Ukraine took in 215 people, including fighters who led the defense of the Mariupol Azovstal steel plants that have become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
“We were ready to accept such a price, we gave up 215 people, including some … war criminals,” said Pushlin, probably referring to fighters of the Azov Regiment, a former volunteer battalion integrated into the Ukrainian army.
The Azov fighters are hated figures of the Russian state media and officials, who portray them as “neo-Nazis” and have called for their trial.
But the task was to get our men back as quickly as possible, Pushlin added.
In the statement, the Defense Ministry’s daily briefing, Moscow also accused Kyiv of committing “provocations” at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine “with the aim of creating a threat of a man-made disaster.”
Over the past 24 hours, Ukraine has repeatedly bombed the nearby city of Energodar and the territory near the reactor, Europe’s largest nuclear facility, she said, adding that radiation levels were “normal”.
The plant has been a hotspot for fears of a nuclear accident following mutual allegations of attacks there.