Ukraine says more than 100 prisoners of war were freed in a major Orthodox Easter exchange with Russia Sunday. It’s the second time Orthodox Ukrainians are marking the holiday since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion. Russian shelling overnight hit an Orthodox church in Zaporizhzhia province despite the holiday. At least four civilians were killed, and eight others were injured. Russia President Vladimir Putin marked the Orthodox Easter holiday attending a midnight service Saturday, crossing himself several times, even as Russian troops continued shelling Ukraine. British military analysts say Moscow is bringing back a senior general that was dismissed in January. His return could signal a larger role for Russia’s air borne forces.
Ukraine and Russia said Sunday they carried out a new prisoner exchange on the Sunday of Orthodox Easter, with Kyiv saying 130 of its military personnel had returned home.
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Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president, said the returning prisoners of war included soldiers, sailors, border guards and others, but it was not known how many Russian captives Ukraine released. Despite the ongoing war, now in its 14th month, the two countries have exchanged prisoners several times, usually roughly in equal numbers.
In a video on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group fighting alongside Moscow’s troops, was seen ordering a soldier to prepare the Ukrainian captives to leave Russian-controlled territory “by lunchtime” Sunday. The POWs were shown walking along a road and boarding trucks.
Yermak said in a Telegram post that the latest group of released Ukrainians included troops who fought near Bakhmut, the eastern mining city where Russian and Ukrainian forces have for months engaged in fierce fighting.
“The lives of our people are the highest value for us,” Yermak said, adding that Kyiv’s goal was to bring back all remaining POWs, although he did not disclose any head count of the remaining military personnel held by Russia.
Orthodox Easter celebrations in Ukraine were muted, with curfews barring the faithful from customary all-night services, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in the Christian faith.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended Easter services Saturday in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. He crossed himself several times during the midnight service, known as the Divine Liturgy. When Patriarch Kirill announced, “Christ has risen,” Putin, along with other members of the congregation, replied, “Truly he is risen.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his Easter address released Sunday, described the holiday as marking “the victory of good, the victory of truth, the victory of life,” and he stressed what he said was Ukrainian unity in the face of Russian aggression.
“Belief in victory unites all of us always, and especially today,” Zelenskyy said. “At Easter, which from time immemorial has been a family holiday for Ukrainians, a day of warmth, hope and great unity. We are one big family — Ukrainians. We have one big home — Ukraine. We have one big goal — victory for all.”
Despite the holiday, fighting raged on, with officials in the country’s south and east saying that churches had not been spared. The head of the local military administration in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia province said Russian shelling overnight hit an Orthodox church in the town of Komyshuvakha. Photos showed residents rescuing icons from the church, its gutted frame visible in the background.
Ukrainian officials said at least four civilians were killed and eight others were wounded Saturday and overnight. In the Russian-occupied territory in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Donetsk region claimed that a Ukrainian strike killed one civilian and wounded six others in the province’s namesake capital.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.