Russia condemns Turkey’s release of Azovstal commanders

Azovstal commanders release from Turkey
Zelenskyy embraces one of Azovstal commanders as they return to Ukraine from Turkey

Turkey released Azovstal commanders to Ukraine during Zelenskyy’s Ankara visit.

In a highly symbolic action that Russia said broke a prisoner swap deal struck last year, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned five former leaders of Ukraine’s garrison in Mariupol from Turkey on Saturday.

The release was promptly criticised by Russia. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, said Moscow was not notified despite Ankara’s claim that it had agreed to retain the soldiers in Turkey as part of the swap deal.

Zelenskyy also went to Snake Island, a Black Sea Island that Russian soldiers had taken control of on the day of the invasion before abandoning it. This was done in honour of the 500th day of the invasion.

The five commanders were lauded in Ukraine for spearheading a valiant three-month defence of Mariupol from the Azovstal steel plant last year, the largest city Russia has conquered.

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“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” said Zelenskyy, who met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for talks in Istanbul on Friday.

In the early months of the conflict, Russian soldiers destroyed Mariupol, killing thousands of people. In tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal plant, the Ukrainian troops resisted until Kyiv eventually gave the order to surrender in May last year.

Under conditions that required the Azovstal commander to stay in Turkey until the end of the conflict, Moscow released some of them in a prisoner swap arranged with Ankara in September.

“No one informed us about this,” Peskov said to the Russian news agency RIA. “According to the agreements, these ringleaders were to remain on the territory of Turkey until the end of the conflict,” he added.

Peskov said the release was the result of intense pressure from Turkey’s NATO partners ahead of the military alliance’s summit next week, during which Ukraine wants to get a positive sign regarding its future membership.

Zelenskyy didn’t explain in his remarks why the Azovstal commander were suddenly permitted to go home. Requests for responses from the Turkish Directorate of Communications went unanswered.

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