Ukrainian guards from Snake Island freed in prisoner exchange with Russia

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March 24 (UPI) — Ukraine conducted a prisoner swap with Russia, which freed 10 border guards who were captured while defending a small island in the Black Sea, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Thursday.

Vereshchuk announced the two countries each exchanged 10 prisoners of war, the first large-scale exchange of the conflict that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

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“In exchange for 10 captured occupiers we rescued 10 of our servicemen,” she wrote on Facebook.

The countries have conducted at least two prior, smaller prisoner swaps, including one that involved Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov.

Both sides also exchanged a number of civilian prisoners, including more than a dozen Ukrainian sailors, plucked from the Black Sea as their ship sank in February.

“Also, today we sent 11 Russian civilian sailors to the Russians, whom we rescued from a sunken ship near Odessa. As a result of this exchange, 19 Ukrainian civilian sailors are returning home from the rescue ship Sapphire, which was captured by the occupiers while trying to take our troops from Snake Island.

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“Under the terms of the exchange, the lifeboat itself will also be returned to Ukraine and sent to a port in Turkey,” Vereshchuk wrote.

The Ukrainian government also announced Thursday that it will introduce a new postage stamp honoring the border guards who made international headlines while defending Snake Island in the early days of the Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova made the announcement on Twitter.

“The sketch by artist Boris Groh received the most votes and will soon be published by Ukraine’s state postal company,” Dzhaparova wrote on Twitter.

Snake Island also is known as Serpent or Zmiinyi Island.

The stamp features a lone Ukrainian soldier standing, flipping the middle finger at a passing warship.

The stamp’s design was sketched and submitted by artist Boris Groh and chosen through a public vote from a collection of 20 submissions.

The Ukrainian soldiers were hailed as heroes in late February after they were believed to have died while swearing at invading Russian troops. Days later, it was revealed they were alive and being held prisoner.

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The border guards were defending the remote island when they were approached by a Russian warship and told to surrender. “I ask you to lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise, you will be bombed,” the Russian warship said over the radio.

Rather than submit, the group of border guards responded over the radio by replying “Russian warship, go f- yourself.”

The incident led to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky branding them national heroes.