Five top commanders who led the defense of the Azovstal steel plant during the Battle of Mariupol and surrendered to the Russians in May 2022 are returning to Ukraine with President Volodymyr Zelensky, sparking a furious response from the Kremlin.
The five had been released from Russian captivity in September 2022 and were being held in Turkey as part of an agreement whereby they were to stay there for the duration of the war.
President of Zelensky said: “We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home.”
The five commanders are Denys Prokopenko, leader of the Azov Regiment; his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar; Serhiy Volynsky, commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade; Oleg Khomenko, senior Azov officer; and Denys Shlega, Commander of the 12th Brigade.
Russia responded angrily to the news. "The return of Azov commanders from Turkey to Ukraine is nothing but a direct violation of the terms of existing agreements," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
He said both Ukraine and Turkey had violated the terms of the agreement, under which the men were supposed to remain in Turkey until the end of the conflict.
Peskov said the return was linked to the "failure of the counter-offensive" launched by Ukraine, and Ankara's desire to show its "solidarity" ahead of a July 11-12 NATO summit in Vilnius.
"Preparations for the NATO summit are underway and of course there has been a lot of pressure on Turkey," he said.
The Azovstal defenders held out against a Russian siege while outnumbered and outgunned for about two months, distracting the enemy’s forces and preventing them from moving in other directions.
On May 16, 2022, the commanders of units stationed at Azovstal received an order from the higher command echelon to save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers, given the perilous situation.
At midnight on May 17, they surrendered. About 1,700 defenders were evacuated from Azovstal.
According to the terms of the exchange with the Russian Federation, the five top commanders were to remain in Turkey under the personal protection of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan until the end of the war.
President Zelensky met the defenders at the Istanbul airport and congratulated them on their return. “I congratulate you! You are our heroes. I’m very glad for your return to your homeland. Glory to Ukraine!” the President said.
UPDATE: Zelensky and all five commanders are in Lviv.
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