More than 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war were released and have returned home, a senior presidential official said on Sunday, as part of a “great Easter exchange”.
Forces from the two countries have held regular prisoner exchanges since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
“We are bringing back 130 of our people. It has been taking place in several stages over the past few days,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak said on Twitter.
The announcement came as Orthodox Christians in both Ukraine and Russia marked the religious holiday for a second time since the start of the war.
It was not clear how many Russians soldiers were sent back the other way.
The Ukrainian prisoners appear to have been held by the Russian mercenary group, Wagner.
It’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was seen in a video posted on Telegram telling them that they would be handed back to Ukrainian forces to mark Easter.
“I received an order from my leadership to hand you over to the Ukrainian side before Easter, so that you can get to your families, wives, mothers, and children. I hope you never get back to us again. Now get into the trucks,” an armed Wagner soldier can be heard telling the prisoners.
Easter is the most important celebration in the Orthodox calendar in both Russia and Ukraine, which is celebrated later than in western countries because the date is based on the Julian calendar.
The marking of the day was muted in Ukraine due to security concerns. But, in an Easter video address, Zelenskyy said Russia’s all-out war “cannot erase us”.
Security concerns dampen Ukrainian celebrations
In the town of Staryi Saltiv, which was liberated from Russian forces at the end of April last year, residents had to hold their Easter service in the basement of the local church which was several damaged during the occupation.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remained loyal to the Moscow patriarch since the 17th century, declared independence from Moscow’s Patriarchate after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russia’s top bishop, Patriarch Kirill, led an Easter service at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.
The Patriarch, who has previously justified the country’s offensive in Ukraine by insisting Russians and Ukrainians are brothers separated by force, urged them to do everything to restore peace.
“Sad events, which may even be described as internal feud, are now taking place on our historic Russian land,” he said, “with the force of our prayer, and our good deeds, and our good intentions, we must do everything to stop this conflict as soon as possible.”