KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ten Ukrainians who had been held prisoner for years were released from Russian captivity Friday with the mediation of the Vatican, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Part of the group arrived overnight by helicopter at Kyiv International Airport, which has been closed since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. It was the first time in over two years the airport received passengers. The rest of the group arrived by bus.

Some of the released civilians had been captured before Russia’s invasion. It’s a rare occasion when people detained after 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, were released.

Among the freed was Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy head of the Mejlis, a representative body of Crimean Tatars that was relocated to Kyiv after Russia seized the peninsula. He was taken from Crimea, where he lived despite the annexation, one year before the war.

“I was in captivity, where many Ukrainians remain,” he said. “We cannot leave them there, because the conditions, both psychological and physical, are very frightening there.”

In the main hall of the airport, where pre-war advertisements still hang, former prisoners wrapped in blue and yellow flags reunited with their families and called those who couldn’t be there. For some, the separation had lasted many years.

“I really want to hug you. I’ll be with you soon, Mommy,” said Isabella Pekh, the daughter of freed art historian Olena Pekh, through a video call. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet you.”

For almost six years, Isabella Pekh spoke at international conferences and appealed to foreign ambassadors for help in freeing her mother, who was detained in the occupied part of the Donetsk region. Eventually, her efforts succeeded.

“It was six years of hell that words cannot describe. But I knew I had my homeland, I had people who loved me, I had my daughter,” said Olena Pekh.

Two priests were also among those who returned Friday. One of them, Bohdan Heleta, was detained in 2022 inside his church in the occupied city of Berdiansk in the Zaporizhzhia region.

According to Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 3,310 Ukrainians have already been released from Russian captivity. But many thousands, both civilians and military personnel, remain imprisoned.

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