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Russia and Ukraine exchange prisoners despite plane crash

Russia and Ukraine have completed another large prisoner exchange despite the crash last week of a Russian military transport plane that Moscow says was shot down by Ukraine carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war to a similar swap.

The two countries have carried out periodic prisoner swaps via intermediaries since the invasion began nearly two years ago, despite the absence of peace talks for much of that time.

The Russian Defence Ministry said that each side had received 195 soldiers, while Ukraine said that 207 people had been returned to it.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping broker the deal, adding in a statement that Russian soldiers would be flown to Moscow for medical and psychological treatment.

The ministry said the swap was originally intended to take place on 24 January, but was disrupted by Ukraine shooting down a Russian plane carrying Ukrainian prisoners to the exchange point with a ground-to-air missile killing all 74 people on board.

The transport plane was downed inside Russia’s Belgorod region.

President Vladimir Putin said that Kyiv had used a US Patriot missile system to bring it down.

Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied that it attacked the plane, and has demanded proof of who was on board.

Mr Putin said Moscow would continue such exchanges and that Kyiv had indicated it was open to more.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the exchange on social media: “Our people are back. 207 of them. We return them home no matter what.”

Ukraine’s state body in charge of prisoners of war said the 50th such exchange had brought home soldiers involved in defending the cities of Mariupol and Kherson as well as some captured by Russia on Snake Island in the Black Sea.

It said marines and combat medics were among the Ukrainians returned, with 36 injured or seriously ill.

The latest and biggest exchange was on 3 January, when 478 captives were traded, also with UAE mediation.

Ukraine ‘hits’ airfield in Crimea

The Ukrainian military claimed to have struck a military air base in Russian-occupied Crimea, while Moscow said it had thwarted the attack by shooting down missiles but some debris had hit a military installation.

In a post on social media, Ukraine’s Air Force commander Mykola Oleshchuk thanked the military for conducting the operation, striking Belbek airfield on the southwestern tip of the Crimea Peninsula near Russia’s main naval base at Sevastopol.

“Ukrainian aviators will definitely return to their home airfield,” he said, posting a video of the purported strike.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, Moscow thwarted an attack on Crimea and shot down 20 Ukrainian missiles – 17 over the Black Sea and three more over the peninsula.

The ministry said fragments of Ukrainian missiles fell on the territory of a military unit in Lyubimovka, which is near the Belbek military air base.

The incident caused no damage to “aviation equipment”, it said.

Meanwhile, at least two civilians died in the latest exchange of overnight aerial attacks between Russia and Ukraine, officials on both sides have said.

In recent months, Ukraine has upped drone attacks against Russian territory, mainly targeting border regions, but also the capital Moscow and the northern city of Saint Petersburg.

The pro-Russia mayor of the town of Gorlivka in Donetsk, one of the Ukrainian regions that Russia claims to have annexed, said that two civilians died and one was wounded in a Ukrainian drone attack.

A Ukrainian drone was also destroyed by Russian air defence systems over the Pskov region, Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement on its website.

Ukraine said that Russian forces attacked the country with 20 drones and three missiles overnight, and that air defence systems downed more than one dozen of the unmanned aerial vehicles. It made no mention of the missiles.

Authorities in the eastern Kharkiv region bordering Russia said a supermarket and residential homes were damaged in the attack that left three injured.

One person was also injured in the southern Mykolaiv region, officials added.

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