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Azovstal leaders freed in prisoner swap vowed to return to battlefield in Ukraine

(CNN) — Ukrainian commanders who were captured by Russia after leading the defense of Mariupol from the Azovstal steelworks have vowed to return to the battlefield after a prisoner exchange.

The commanders announced their intentions at a press conference shortly after arriving in Lviv, Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday.

They had already traveled to Türkiye as part of the prisoner exchange.

After a long siege, the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol fell under full Russian control in 2022 with the surrender of Azovstal, the city’s last Ukrainian defense stronghold. The Russian army claimed that more than 2,000 Ukrainian servicemen had gone there.

At a press conference, some of the fighters spoke about their experiences in Turkey and shared their expectations for the future.

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

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

Video footage showed huge crowds gathering in Lviv to greet the leaders.

Azov Deputy Commander Svyatoslav Palamar described his experience in Turkey using a poem by famous Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka.

“We are sparkling-eyed paraplegics with strong souls and weak wills. Eagle wings grow from our backs, but we were chained to Turkish soil,” he said, adding that Zelensky and his team had found the key “to remove the chains.”

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

Zelensky pictured with Azovstal commanders as they return from Istanbul to Ukraine. (Credit: Ukrainian Presidential News Service/Reuters)

Zelensky thanked his team and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular for helping bring the Azovstal leadership home.

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

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