KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, returning home from a visit to Turkey, brought with him five commanders of Ukraine’s former garrison in Mariupol, forced to live in Turkey under the terms of a prisoner exchange last year.

The commanders, lionised as heroes in Ukraine, led last year’s defence of the port, the biggest city Russia captured in its invasion. Thousands of civilians were killed inside Mariupol when Russian forces laid the city to waste during a three-month siege.

The Ukrainian defenders, who held out in tunnels and bunkers under a steel plant, were finally ordered by Kyiv to surrender in May last year. Moscow freed some of them in September last year in a prisoner swap brokered by Ankara, under terms that required the commanders to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” said Zelenskiy who met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for talks in Istanbul on Friday.

“Ukrainian soldiers Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Oleh Khomenko, Denys Shleha. They will finally be with their relatives,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.

Zelenskiy gave no explanation for why the commanders were being allowed to return home now. Turkey’s Directorate of Communications did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There was no immediate comment from Moscow.

Zelenskiy posted a one-minute video showing himself and other officials shaking hands and hugging the smiling commanders before they boarded a Czech airplane together.

Many Ukrainians hailed the news on social media.

“Finally! The best news ever. Congratulations to our brothers!” Major Maksym Zhorin who is fighting now in eastern Ukraine, said on the Telegram messaging app.

(Reporting by Olena Harmash; Editing by Peter Graff)

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