President Vladimir Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 military personnel were handed over to Russia in a record-breaking prisoner exchange with Kiev, a leader of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine confirmed Thursday.
“Fifty-six people were released, 55 of them military … Viktor Medvedchuk was also released from captivity,” Denis Pushilin told the state news agency RIA Novosti, referring to the former Ukrainian MP, accused of high treason.
Medvedchuk, 68, is one of the richest people in Ukraine and says Putin is the godfather of his youngest daughter.
He was captured by Ukrainian special forces in mid-April after escaping house arrest.
The Russian Defense Ministry previously stated that the released soldiers were transported to Russia and “are in the medical institutions of the Russian Defense Ministry”.
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He said in a statement that the released prisoners were “in mortal danger” while in captivity.
He did not mention the whereabouts of Medvedchuk.
The Ministry of Defense released a video of what they believed to be freed soldiers, showing men in military uniform disembarking from a plane at night.
After the exchange announced Wednesday, Ukraine received 215 people, including fighters leading the defense of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel mill, which has become an icon of Ukrainian resistance.
“We were ready to accept such a price, we gave away 215 people, including some of them … war criminals,” said Pushilin, probably referring to fighters from the Azov Regiment, a former volunteer battalion that was incorporated into the Ukrainian army.
The Azov fighters are figures of hatred for the Russian media and state officials, who demonize them as “neo-Nazis” and have called them to trial.
“But the task was to get our boys back as soon as possible,” Pushilin added.
Also in the statement, in the daily briefing of the Defense Ministry, Moscow accused Kiev of “provocations” at the Russian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine “aimed at creating a threat of a man-made disaster”.
He said that in the past 24 hours, Ukraine has repeatedly bombed the nearby city of Energodar and the area near the power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear facility, adding that radiation levels were “normal”.
The plant has been a hot spot for concerns of a nuclear accident following tit-for-tat claims of attacks there.