Ukraine hails prisoner swap as Russian missiles hit more cities

Pope Francis decries”barbaric”strike on shopping centre as Donbas battle rages on

Ukraine has said 144 soldiers will be coming home in the biggest prisoner swap with Moscow since the start of all-out war four months ago, as Russian forces continued to launch deadly missile strikes against Ukrainian cities.

Fierce fighting continued on Tuesday for Lysychansk, the last government-controlled city in the eastern Luhansk region, and United Nations monitors said Russia’s invasion had had “a devastating impact on the human rights across” Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate said 95 of the 144 soldiers who were returning home in the prisoner swap had defended the vast Azovstal metalworks in Mariupol, where Kyiv’s troops made their last stand in the ruined city through weeks of intense Russian bombardment. Many had serious injuries, the agency added.

No details were immediately available on where and when the swap will take place, how it was arranged, or how many Russian troops will return home in exchange.

At least four people were killed and five injured when Russian missiles hit the Black Sea city of Mykolaiv early on Wednesday. Ukrainian officials said it was just the latest attack on a civilian target, but Moscow’s military said a training base for “foreign mercenaries” had been hit.

The strike came hours after at least two people were killed when a Russian rocket hit a car repair garage in Dnipro in eastern Ukraine, and as workers were still sifting through the rubble of a shopping centre in the central city of Kremenchuk, where 18 people died, more than 50 were hurt and 20 are still missing after a missile attack on Monday.

“Every day, I carry in my heart dear and tormented Ukraine, which continues to be flagellated by barbaric attacks like the one that hit the shopping centre in Kremenchuk,” Pope Francis told crowds in St Peter’s Square during Wednesday’s feast of St Peter and Paul.

“I pray that this mad war may soon end… May the Lord open paths of dialogue that men are either unwilling or unable to find. May they not neglect to help the Ukrainian people, who are suffering so much,” he added.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions displaced since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbour four months ago, seizing swathes of territory in southern Ukraine and most of the eastern Donbas area, which comprises Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

“The Russian army is currently continuing to advance… in an attempt to encircle Lysychansk,” said Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai, who compared the current situation in the city to that of neighbouring Sievierodonetsk about a month ago, when it was subjected to intense street fighting and massive shelling from Moscow’s artillery forces.

“There are battles everywhere – everywhere the enemy is trying to break through the line of our defenders – and given that they are not successful, they shell everything constantly,” he explained.

United Nations human rights monitors in Ukraine released a report on the war on Wednesday, and said “the daily killing of civilians, the torture, disappearances and other violations must stop”.

The UN office of the high commissioner for human rights said it had “documented and verified allegations of unlawful killings, including summary executions of civilians in more than 30 settlements in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions” while they were under Russian occupation, including cases involving at least 50 civilians in the town of Bucha alone.