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Ukrainian first lady meets with freed Azov commanders in Turkey

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Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska on Monday met with five commanders of the Azov Regiment who were released from Russian captivity in September as part of her visit to Turkey, local media reported.

Sharing photos from the event on Twitter on Monday, Zelenska said she met with “’Azov’ heroes in Turkey” and expressed gratitude for their striving and resilience.

Noting that head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak helped in arranging a meeting with the commanders’ families, the first lady added: “It is an important day, but there is still a long way to go. [Ukraine] will fight for freedom and returning of each person back home.”

According to a report by The Washington Post in September, hundreds of prisoners of war were released on Sept. 21 in a surprise deal between Moscow and Kyiv, including 10 foreign nationals captured in Ukraine, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and commanders and fighters of the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary group.

As part of the prisoner swap, Moscow agreed to release the foreigners as well as 215 Ukrainians, including more than 100 members of Azov. In return, Ukraine said it released Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 Russian and pro-Russian fighters.

Although the imbalance in numbers as well as the freeing of Azov members long portrayed as “Nazis” by the Kremlin sparked criticism in Russia from pro-war nationalists, the breadth and depth of the prisoner exchange — which was brokered with involvement from Saudi Arabia and Turkey — drew praise from the governments of the freed foreigners, The Washington Post said.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky previously said five commanders of the Azov Regiment, including Hero of Ukraine Denys Prokopenko, his deputy Sviatoslav Palamar and acting commander of the 36th separate brigade of marines Serhiy Volynsky, would stay in Turkey under the personal protection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan until the end of the war.

Turkey, a NATO member, has conducted a diplomatic balancing act since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The Turkish government opposes Western sanctions on Russia and has close ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, its Black Sea neighbors. It has also criticized Russia’s invasion and sent combat drones to Ukraine.

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