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Smiles of Ukrainian heroes of Mariupol as they’re traded to freedom

Smiling, waving and flashing peace signs in front of the cameras: this was the emotional moment when the Ukrainian hero defenders of Mariupol were released last night in a shock prisoner exchange with Russia.

Their survival defies all odds. After spending nearly three months under a Russian siege, wildly outsmarted and armed, they were last bussed to prisons akin to concentration camps.

Many doubted that they would ever be seen alive again. Russian hardliners, who consider Azov the worst of the worst – Nazis and war criminals – had called for their execution.

But last night it was confirmed they were safe. Among them Azov commander Denis Prokopenko, his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar and Marine Commander Serhiy Volynsky,

Also pictured were Kateryna “Birdie” Polishchuk, a medic whose singing at the Azovstal steel mill inspired a nation, and Mykhailo Dianov, last seen with a shattered arm that became symbolic of the horrors at the factory.

Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Zelensky, said more than one of the fighters was heavily pregnant. Olena Zelenska, the First Lady, declared that it was “the day all of Ukraine was waiting for.”

Mykhailo Dianov, one of Mariupol's heroic defenders, was dramatically released last night in a surprise prisoner swap with Russia, along with 205 other Ukrainians

Mykhailo Dianov, one of Mariupol’s heroic defenders, was dramatically released last night in a surprise prisoner swap with Russia, along with 205 other Ukrainians

Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the officers of the Azov battalion last seen at the Azovstal steel mill, smiles after being released from Russian captivity late last night

Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the officers of the Azov battalion last seen at the Azovstal steel mill, smiles after being released from Russian captivity late last night

Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the officers of the Azov battalion last seen at the Azovstal steel mill, smiles after being released from Russian captivity late last night

Ukraine said 205 of its citizens — including 100 from the Azov battalion — were among those trafficked for just 56 Russians, including Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk

Ukraine said 205 of its citizens — including 100 from the Azov battalion — were among those trafficked for just 56 Russians, including Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk

Ukraine said 205 of its citizens — including 100 from the Azov battalion — were among those trafficked for just 56 Russians, including Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk

Smiles were everywhere as members of the Azov battalion were released, and many feared they would never be seen again after surrendering in the city of Mariupol in May

Smiles were everywhere as members of the Azov battalion were released, and many feared they would never be seen again after surrendering in the city of Mariupol in May

Smiles were everywhere as members of the Azov battalion were released, and many feared they would never be seen again after surrendering in the city of Mariupol in May

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces embraces one of the newly released detainees last night, after Russia announced a surprise exchange for members of its own armed forces

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces embraces one of the newly released detainees last night, after Russia announced a surprise exchange for members of its own armed forces

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces embraces one of the newly released detainees last night, after Russia announced a surprise exchange for members of its own armed forces

In all, Russia agreed to give up 215 Ukrainian prisoners — the five Azov commanders, 10 foreign prisoners, including Britain’s Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and 200 others — in exchange for just 56 of its own.

Ukrainian POWs exchanged for freedom last night are being watched on a bus back to home soil today

Ukrainian POWs exchanged for freedom last night are being watched on a bus back to home soil today

Ukrainian POWs exchanged for freedom last night are being watched on a bus back to home soil today

Among the released Russians is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, and President Zelensky says he has been exchanged for 200 Ukrainians.

Zelensky said the price was worth paying, and that Medvedchuk had already provided spies with a lot of information.

But – amid anger in Russia over the swapping of the Azov defenders – speculation has surfaced that Medvedchuk was not the main point of the swap.

Some — including security expert Michael Weiss — speculated that the Russians captured during the lightning-fast counterattack from Kharkov may be behind it.

Rumors circulated that Ukraine managed to capture a Russian general during that offensive, who would be the most senior officer to be captured since World War II.

Moscow and Kiev have neither confirmed nor denied those rumors, and now appear to be in no rush to do so.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat,” but adding that “much remains to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said.

The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of detainees and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

According to Zelenskyy, many of the freedmen belonged to the Ukrainian Azov regiment, which he called heroes.

Kateryna 'Birdie' Polishchuk

Kateryna 'Birdie' Polishchuk

Kateryna 'Birdie' Polishchuk

Kateryna 'Birdie' Polishchuk

Kateryna ‘Birdie’ Polishchuk, a medic whose signature at the Azovstal factory (left) inspired Ukraine, was also pictured smiling after her release (right) last night

Ukrainians released last night from Russian captivity as part of a prisoner swap pose in front of the national flag

Ukrainians released last night from Russian captivity as part of a prisoner swap pose in front of the national flag

Ukrainians released last night from Russian captivity as part of a prisoner swap pose in front of the national flag

Denis Prokopenko (center right), the commander of the Azov battalion, was among those threatened with execution after his capture, but was released yesterday

Denis Prokopenko (center right), the commander of the Azov battalion, was among those threatened with execution after his capture, but was released yesterday

Denis Prokopenko (center right), the commander of the Azov battalion, was among those threatened with execution after his capture, but was released yesterday

Five Azov commanders - led by Denis Prokopenko - are now being taken to Turkey, where they will have to sit under President Erdogan's protection for the rest of the war

Five Azov commanders - led by Denis Prokopenko - are now being taken to Turkey, where they will have to sit under President Erdogan's protection for the rest of the war

Five Azov commanders – led by Denis Prokopenko – are now being taken to Turkey, where they will have to sit under President Erdogan’s protection for the rest of the war

More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov unit, marched from the twisted wreckage of the Azovstal steel mill into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.

Five of the released Azov commanders are now living in Turkey, according to a report on Zelenskyy’s website.

Meanwhile, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were flown to Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly helping in the negotiations.

A total of five Britons, along with two Americans, a Swede, a Croat and a Moroccan, are currently in Riyadh.

In a video posted to Instagram, the couple smiles at the camera as they sit in their seats on a plane from Russia.

Aslin says, “We just want everyone to know that we are now out of harm’s way and on our way home to our families.”

Pinner, sitting next to him, snaps, “Just in the nick of time.”

Two US military veterans – Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27 – were also released thanks to the prisoner swap.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss said: “Huge welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being returned safely, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”

The prisoner swap came at a puzzling moment, landing on the same day Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists in a dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine.

Putin also threatened the West with nuclear weapons over Ukraine after he announced plans to annex occupied parts of his territory to mainland Russia.

A photo taken earlier in the war of Dianov with a shattered arm had become a symbol of the horrors his unit endured under the Russian siege

A photo taken earlier in the war of Dianov with a shattered arm had become a symbol of the horrors his unit endured under the Russian siege

A photo taken earlier in the war of Dianov with a shattered arm had become a symbol of the horrors his unit endured under the Russian siege

Prokopenko (pictured next to naval commander Serhiy Volynsky) had provided regular updates on the state of the siege from Mariupol

Prokopenko (pictured next to naval commander Serhiy Volynsky) had provided regular updates on the state of the siege from Mariupol

Prokopenko (pictured next to naval commander Serhiy Volynsky) had provided regular updates on the state of the siege from Mariupol

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