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Ukraine war: Prisoner swap, Kremlin denies Russians are fleeing and Poland hands out iodine pills

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By Euronews with AFP, AP, and Reuters
Ukrainian soldiers, who were released in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, smile close to Chernihiv, Ukraine, late Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers, who were released in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, smile close to Chernihiv, Ukraine, late Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022.   -   Copyright  Ukrainian Security service Press Office via AP

1. Ukraine and Russia exchange almost 300 people in prisoners swap

More than 200 Ukrainian and foreign citizens captured by Russian troops have been released in a massive prison swap between Kyiv and Moscow, the biggest since the beginning of the war on 24 February.

The swap was brokered by Turkey and announced in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Among the 215 prisoners released by Russia, there were some of those who fought at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and finally surrendered in May, together with Ukrainian border guards, police officers and other soldiers, according to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Among the foreign fighters released by Russia, there are five British citizens and two Americans.

"We have freed 215 of our people from captivity, of whom 124 are officers. Of those we have freed, 108 are Azov fighters", said Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff.

In return, Ukraine released 55 Russian prisoners, including the former Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Putin who stands accused of high treason in Ukraine. 

Medvedchuk, who for years had played as a Kremlin's agent of influence in Ukraine, had been arrested in April after escaping house arrest while awaiting trial for treason.

"I am not sad about swapping Medvedchuk for real warriors", said Zelenskyy about the exchange. "He has gone through all investigative procedures according to the law and Ukraine has got everything from him it needs to determine the truth".

2. No sign of war letting up, says UN chief António Guterres

The United Nations Security Council met on Thursday to discuss the latest developments in the war in Ukraine. 

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, told the council that the war "shows no sign of letting up".

Guterres expressed particular concern for the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which has recently been the target of shelling that Ukraine and Russia blame on each other.

"All attacks on nuclear facilities must end and the purely civilian nature of such plants must be re-established," Guterres said.

"Any damage to nuclear infrastructure, whether deliberate or not, could have terrible consequences for people around the planet."

On the topic of the prisoner swap conducted on Wednesday, Guterres said it was a "welcome development".

But on other issues, Guterres was more pessimistic. He said Putin's threat of a nuclear conflict, as announced on Wednesday, is "totally unacceptable". He also said four regions' plans for "referendums" on joining Russia would be annexation.

AP Photo
People cross a street with a billboard reading "How to get a passport of a citizen of Russia" prior to a referendum in Luhansk.AP Photo

The "referendums" on joining are due to take place from Friday until Tuesday.

"Any annexation of a state's territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the UN Charter and of international law," Guterres said.

3. Kremlin denies Russians are trying to flee the reservists call-up

After Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a "partial mobilisation" on Wednesday that could see an initial 300,000 reservists join the country's war in Ukraine, searches for flights out of the country reportedly skyrocketed.

Flight sales data from Russia has shown that plane tickets from Moscow to the capitals of Georgia, Turkey and Armenia had sold out within minutes after the president's speech.

In Europe, countries neighbouring Russia have started reacting to the possibility that Russians trying to flee the military draft will cross into their borders, with the Baltic states saying they won't accept those leaving Russia, even if they apply for asylum. 

But despite these reports, the Kremlin has denied that Russian men of fighting age are fleeing the country, calling the claims "exaggerated".

Facts appear to contradict the Russian leadership. Finland has reported that traffic arriving at the country’s eastern border "intensified" overnight following Putin's announcement. However, Euronews has debunked claims that queues were 35 kilometres long.

The country's prime minister Sanna Marin has announced that her government is considering sharply reducing Russian tourism and transit through the country, but no details are available yet on new restrictions.

The EU said it's working on a coordinated response on how to respond to a possible exodus of Russian young men out of Russia.

4. Poland prepares for a nuclear incident

Poland has distributed iodine tablets to regional fire departments to give to people in the event of radioactive exposure, a deputy minister said on Thursday, as the country grows more concerned about the risk of a nuclear incident at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Iodine tablets are considered a way of protecting the body against conditions such as thyroid cancer which may be caused by radioactive exposure.

"After the media reports about battles near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant we decided [...] ahead of time to take protective action to distribute iodine", deputy interior minister Blazej Pobozy told Polish private broadcaster Radio Zet.

"I would like to reassure all citizens that these are routine, pre-emptive actions that are to protect us in the event of a situation which [...] I hope will not happen", he said.

The nuclear power plant has been damaged in recent shelling around its buildings, leading many to fear an impending nuclear catastrophe whose ripple effect will hit far outside of Ukraine's borders. 

Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of launching the attacks nearby the plant.

5. North Korea denies claims of providing Russia with weapons

On Thursday, North Korea denied an American intelligence report ​saying the country was selling millions of weapons, including artillery shells and rockets, ​to Russia to support its war in Ukraine. 

In a statement by a senior official at the North’s Ministry of National Defense, reported by the official Korean Central News Agency​, North Korea said the accusation by the US was "reckless".

"We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them" the statement reads "We warn the US to stop making reckless remarks".

North Korea has supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine, blaming responsibility for the war on NATO and the West.