Dozens of people, including a United States citizen, have been released in the latest prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, nearly 10 months into a grinding war that began after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
The latest exchange included 64 Ukrainian soldiers and a US national living in Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said on Wednesday.
Yermak identified the American as Suedi Murekezi who he said had been “helping our people” before he ended up in Russian custody. He did not elaborate.
The White House national security spokesman, John Kirby, did not name the freed American, citing privacy concerns.
“We certainly welcome that news,” Kirby told reporters.
Fighting is raging in Ukraine’s east and south, while the capital Kyiv was subjected to a significant drone attack on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions more displaced and cities reduced to rubble since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
“There is no calm on the front line,” Zelenskyy said in his regular evening video address, adding that Russia was destroying towns in the east with artillery “so that only bare ruins and craters” remained.
Zelenskyy said this week that Russia should start withdrawing from his country by Christmas as a step towards ending the conflict, Europe’s biggest since World War Two.
Moscow rejected the proposal outright, saying Ukraine must accept the loss of territory to Russia before any progress can be made. It said on Wednesday there was no chance of a “Christmas ceasefire” despite the prisoner releases showing some contact remained between the two sides.
Hundreds of detainees have been freed in swaps in recent weeks and there has also been some progress on talks to resume Russian exports of a fertiliser ingredient and the extension of a grain deal.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suggested an all-for-all war prisoner swap deal could be an option but emphasised it was up to Russia and Ukraine to reach such an agreement.
ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric said a large swap could build confidence and that such exchanges had in the past constituted “the first step to a broader agreement”.
Neither the Red Cross nor the two sides have made public precise numbers for each country’s war detainees but there are believed to be thousands of such prisoners.
A US official speaking to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity confirmed that the US national released in the latest swap was Murekezi.
The official said Murekezi had been living in or near the southern city of Kherson and that Russian forces had detained him. A group claiming to have helped rescue him, Project Dynamo, said Murekezi was a US air force veteran and had been detained by Russian forces in June.
US considers Patriot system
Russia, which calls its war a “special military operation”, has aimed its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since October and Kyiv has called on its Western allies for help to beef up the country’s air defences.
The US is expected to make an announcement as soon as Thursday on providing the advanced Patriot missile defence system to Ukraine.
Moscow has said the Patriot would be a legitimate target if sent to Ukraine.
The Russian embassy in Washington, DC said a Patriot missile delivery would be “another provocative step by the administration, which could lead to unpredictable consequences”.
Such a deployment would cause “colossal damage not only to Russian-American relations but would create additional global security risks”, it added.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine was doing everything it could to obtain more modern and powerful anti-aircraft and anti-drone systems. The Russian attacks have caused serious damage to the country’s utility networks, interrupting water and electricity supply and leaving millions without heating in frigid temperatures.
In the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s military said that, in the Kharkiv, Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions, “the enemy launched one air and 11 missile strikes, three of them on civilian infrastructure… [and] launched more than 60 attacks from multiple rocket launchers”.
After a series of lightning Ukrainian counter-offensives, which have seen Kyiv regain control over about half the territory Moscow captured in the first weeks of the war, neither side has made significant territorial gains in the past month.