Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war in the largest prisoner release since the conflict began in February 2022.
Ukrainian authorities said 230 Ukrainian prisoners of war returned to their homeland in the first exchange in nearly five months on Wednesday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that 248 Russian soldiers were released on the same day under the agreement sponsored by the United Arab Emirates.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked “the warriors on the front lines who took the occupiers prisoner and replenished our exchange fund.”
He added: “The more Russian prisoners there are, the more effective the negotiations on exchanges will be.”
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs attributed the exchange process on Wednesday to “the strong friendly relations between the UAE and both the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine, which were supported by continuous calls at the highest levels.”
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The UAE maintained close economic relations with Moscow despite Western sanctions and pressure on Russia after it launched its invasion.
Dmytro Lobinets, a human rights investigator in Ukraine, said this was the 49th prisoner exchange during the war.
Some of the Ukrainians had been detained since 2022. Among them were some who fought in historic battles for control of Snake Island in Ukraine and the city of Mariupol.
Russian officials did not provide any further details about the exchange.
Meanwhile, the Russian military announced that it shot down 12 Ukrainian missiles over the Belgorod region in southern Russia, bordering Ukraine.
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the situation in the regional capital, also called Belgorod, “remains tense.”
He wrote on Telegram that the city was subjected to two rounds of bombing on Wednesday.
“The air defense systems worked,” he added, promising more details about the possible damage after inspecting the area later in the day.
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Targeting the largest Ukrainian cities with air strikes
Belgorod, with a population of about 340,000 people, is the largest Russian city close to the Ukrainian border. It can be accessed with relatively simple and portable weapons such as multiple rocket launchers.
The bombing in Belgorod on Saturday killed more than twenty people.
The attack was one of the deadliest on Russian soil since the full-scale invasion of Moscow.
On Monday, Putin criticized the Belgorod attacks.
“They want to intimidate us and create a state of uncertainty within our country,” he said, promising to intensify retaliatory strikes.
Ukrainian officials have never acknowledged responsibility for strikes on Russian territory.