Russia has released 215 Ukrainians it took prisoner after a protracted battle for the port city of Mariupol earlier this year, including top military leaders, Reuters quoting a senior official in Kyiv said on Wednesday.
The freed prisoners include the commander and deputy commander of the Azov battalion that did much of the fighting, said Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office.
According to Reuters the move is unexpected, since Russian-backed separatists last month said there would be a trial of Azov personnel, who Moscow describes as Nazis. Ukraine denies the charge.
In a statement, Yermak said the freed prisoners included Azov commander Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko and his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar.
Also at liberty is Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The three men had helped lead a dogged weeks-long resistance from the bunkers and tunnels below Mariupol’s giant steel works before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered in May to Russian-backed forces.
Yermak said that in return, Kyiv had freed 55 Russian prisoners as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was facing treason charges.
Public broadcaster Suspline said the exchange had happened near the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, Reuters reported.
Earlier in the day, Saudi Arabia said Russia had released 10 foreign prisoners of war captured in Ukraine following mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Last month, the head of the Russian-backed separatist administration in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk said a trial of captured Azov personnel would take place by the end of the summer.
The Azov unit, formed in 2014 as a militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist, and Ukraine says it has been reformed from its radical nationalist origins.
North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US VP Harris visit
North Korea fired a ballistic missile towards the sea off its east coast on Sunday, ahead of planned military drills by South Korean and U.S. forces involving an aircraft carrier and a visit to the region by US Vice President Kamala Harris, Reuters reported.
South Korea’s military said it was a single, short-range ballistic missile fired from near the Taechon area of North Pyongyan Province just before 7 a.m. local time and flew about 600 km (373 miles) at an altitude of 60 km and a speed of Mach 5.
“North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile is an act of grave provocation that threatens the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and international community,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
According to Reuters after the launch, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Kim Seung-kyum and the US Forces Korea Commander Paul LaCamera discussed the situation and reaffirmed their readiness to respond to any threat or provocation from North Korea, it added.
South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss response measures and condemned the launch as an apparent violation of the U.N. Security Council Resolutions and an unjustifiable act of provocation.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who arrived in Seoul late on Saturday from a trip to Britain, the United States and Canada, was briefed on the launch, the presidential office said.
Japan’s Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Japan estimated the missile reached maximum altitude at 50 km and may have flown on an irregular trajectory. Hamada said it fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone and there were no reports of problems with shipping or air traffic.
Many of the short-range missiles tested by North Korea in recent years have been designed to evade missile defences by manoeuvring during flight and flying on a lower, “depressed” trajectory, experts have said.
“If you include launches of cruise missiles this is the nineteenth launch, which is an unprecedented pace,” Hamada said.
“North Korea’s action represents a threat to the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community and to do this as the Ukraine invasion unfolds is unforgivable,” he said, adding that Japan had delivered a protest through North Korea’s embassy in Beijing.
The US Indo-pacific Command said it was aware of the launch and consulting closely with allies, in a statement released after the launch, while reaffirming US commitment to the defence of South Korea and Japan, read the report.
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilising impact of the DPRK’s unlawful Weapons of Mass Destruction and ballistic missile programs.”
US aircraft carrier arrives in South Korea as warning to North Korea
A US aircraft carrier arrived in South Korea on Friday for the first time in about four years, due to join South Korean ships in a military show of force aimed at sending North Korea a message, Reuters quoting officials said.
USS Ronald Reagan and ships from its accompanying strike force docked at a naval base in the southern port city of Busan.
According to Reuters its arrival marks the most significant deployment yet under a new push to have more US nuclear-capable “strategic assets” operate in the area to deter North Korea.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pushed for more joint exercises and other displays of military power as a warning to North Korea, which earlier this year conducted a record number of missile tests after talks failed to persuade it to end its nuclear weapons and missile development.
Observers say Pyongyang also appears to be preparing to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 2017, read the report.
North Korea has denounced previous US military deployments and joint drills as rehearsals for war and proof of hostile policies by Washington and Seoul.
The visit is the first to South Korea by an American aircraft carrier since 2018. That year, the allies scaled back many of their joint military activities amid diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea, but those talks have since stalled and Pyongyang this month unveiled an updated law codifying its right to conduct first-use nuclear strikes if necessary to protect itself.
N.Korea says it has never supplied weapons or ammunition to Russia
North Korea on Thursday said it has never supplied weapons or ammunition to Russia and has no plans to do so, while warning the United States to “keep its mouth shut” and stop circulating rumours aimed at “tarnishing” the country’s image, Reuters reported.
“Recently, the U.S. and other hostile forces talked about the ‘violation of a resolution’ of the UNSC, spreading a ‘rumour of arms dealings’ between the DPRK and Russia … We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them,” KCNA quoted the country’s vice director general of the General Bureau of Equipment of the Ministry of National Defence as saying in a statement, without naming the official.
According to Reuters U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel earlier this month said that Russia “is in the process of purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine.”
Calling it a “potential purchase”, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby later clarified that there were “no indications that purchase has been completed and certainly no indications that those weapons are being used inside of Ukraine.”
The United States has also accused Iran of supplying drones to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine, which Tehran has denied, read the report.
Russia also denied the allegations and demanded the United States to provide evidence.
Russia and North Korea have recently talked up their ties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the two countries will “expand the comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations with common efforts,” in a letter sent for Korea’s liberation day.
Kim also sent a letter to Putin saying the “strategic and tactical cooperation, support and solidarity” between the two countries had reached a new level amid their common efforts to frustrate threats and provocations from “hostile military forces”.
Ukraine, which is resisting a Russian invasion described by Moscow as a “special military operation”, severed relations with Pyongyang after the reclusive nation in July recognised two Russian-backed breakaway “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine as independent states, Reuters reported.
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