Dec 14, 2022 - World

U.S. Air Force veteran freed in Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap

U.S. and Ukrainian flags during a rally in support of Ukraine in St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 2022.

U.S. and Ukraine flags during a rally in support of Ukraine in St. Paul, Minnesota, in March 2022. Photo: Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

Suedi Murekezi, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was freed from Russian-controlled territory in a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday.

Why it matters: Murekezi's relatives told the Washington Post he was arrested in June by pro-Russian authorities in the formerly occupied city of Kherson after being wrongly accused of participating in pro-Ukrainian protests.

  • Kirby, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, confirmed Murekezi's release and said: “We welcome the news."

Details: Murekezi is from Minnesota but has lived in Ukraine since 2018.

  • He was freed along with 64 soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who fought in Donetsk and Luhansk, according to Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's chief of staff.
  • Ukraine also received four bodies of soldiers killed in action, Yermak said.

What they're saying: In an interview with ABC News published Wednesday, Murekezi said he spent weeks in a basement after he was initially arrested, where he said he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks.

  • Murekezi said he was then transferred to a prison in Donetsk city, where he spent three months before being released, though he was without his U.S. passport and effectively trapped.

The big picture: Murekezi's release comes less than a week after WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

  • Murekezi had been one of at least three U.S. veterans arrested or captured by Russia or Russian-backed authorities during Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
  • Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, two other former service members, were captured while fighting alongside Ukrainians in Kharkiv Oblast in June but were freed through a prisoner exchange in September.
  • At least two Americans have been killed while fighting in Ukraine, though the exact number is currently unknown.

Go deeper: Ex-Trump official defends Biden administration's Griner swap with Russia

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