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Azovstal leaders freed in prisoner swap promise to return to the battlefield in Ukraine

<i>Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout/Reuters</i><br/>Zelensky pictured with Azovstal commanders as they return to Ukraine from Istanbul.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout/Reuters
Zelensky pictured with Azovstal commanders as they return to Ukraine from Istanbul.

By Mariya Knight, Heather Chen and Andrew Carey, CNN

(CNN) — Ukrainian commanders who were captured by Russia after leading the defense of Mariupol from the Azovstal steel plant last year have vowed to return to the battlefield following their return home Saturday evening.

The men are among the highest profile fighters to have fallen into Russian hands since the start of the war. They announced their intentions at a news conference held shortly after their arrival in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv, accompanied by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

They had been flown back from Turkey – where they had been held since September under an agreement reached with Russia – in the same plane that carried Zelensky back from his meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Under the terms of their transfer 10 months ago, Turkey had agreed the men would not be handed over to Ukraine until the war’s end. It was not immediately clear why Erdogan had apparently violated that agreement with Moscow.

For Zelensky, it appeared to mark another significant achievement from his Istanbul trip, after he had earlier secured strong support from his Turkish host for Ukraine’s eventual membership of NATO.

The Azovstal siege lasted weeks and made heroes in Ukraine of the men and women who held out for months from February until the end of May 2022. The Russian military has claimed that over 2,000 Ukrainian service members surrendered there.

At the press briefing in Lviv Saturday night, some of the fighters spoke about their experiences in Turkey and shared their expectations of the future.

Denys Prokopenko, a commander of Azov regiment, said: “The most important thing for today is that the Ukrainian army has seized the strategic initiative on the front line and is moving forward every day.”

Prokopenko said returning to the front line was the reason he and others had returned to Ukraine.

Video footage showed large crowds that gathered in Lviv to greet the leaders.

Azov deputy commander Svyatoslav Palamar described his experience in Turkey using a poem by famed Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka.

“We are paraplegics with sparkling eyes, with a strong soul and a weak will. Eagle wings are growing behind our backs but we were shackled to the Turkish soil,” he said, adding that Zelensky and his team found the key “to take their shackles off.”

“We will continue to do our job. We are military men. We took an oath,” Palamar added.

Zelensky thanked his team and Erdogan in particular for helping to bring the Azovstal leaders home.

The Ukrainian president also announced his appointment of Oleksandr Pivnenko as new commander of the National Guard.

Zelensky described him as “a powerful soldier… and combat officer who distinguished himself in the battles against Russian invaders, in particular, in the battles for Bakhmut” in his address to the Ukraine’s National Guard later on Saturday.

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