Volodymyr Zelenskiy returned from a visit to Turkey, bringing home five former Ukrainian garrison commanders in Mariupol despite a prisoner swap last year in which the men were meant to remain in Turkey.
Russia immediately condemned the men’s release. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey violated the terms of the prisoner exchange and failed to notify Moscow.
The commanders, hailed as heroes in Ukraine, led last year’s defense of the port, the largest city captured by Russia in its invasion.
Thousands of civilians were killed inside Mariupol when Russian forces destroyed the city during a three-month siege.
Ukrainian defenders were holed up in tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal steel plant, until Kyiv finally ordered them to surrender in May last year.
Moscow released some of them in September in a prisoner swap brokered by Ankara, under terms that required the commanders to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
“We came home from Turkey and brought our heroes home,” said Zelenskiy who met with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan for talks in Istanbul on Friday.
“Ukrainian soldiers Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Oleh Khomenko, Denys Shleha. They will finally be with their relatives,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.
Peskov told Russia’s RIA news agency: “No one informed us about this. According to the agreements, these group leaders will remain on Turkish territory until the end of the conflict.
Peskov said the release was a result of heavy pressure from Turkey’s NATO allies in the run-up to next week’s summit of the military alliance where Ukraine hopes to receive a positive sign about the future member.
In his speeches, Zelenskiy did not explain why the commanders were allowed to go home today. Turkey’s Directorate of Communications did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zelenskiy posted a one-minute video showing himself and other officers shaking hands and hugging the smiling commanders before they boarded a Czech plane.
Many Ukrainians hailed the news on social media.
“Finally! The best news ever. Congratulations to our brothers!” Maj Maksym Zhorin who is currently fighting in eastern Ukraine, said on the Telegram messaging app.