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KYIV — Russia has agreed to free four Ukrainian children — ranging in age from 2 to 17 — and allow them to return them to their families in Ukraine after Qatar intervened as a mediator, according to a government official briefed on the matter. Two of the children are now back with relatives and two others are expected to be reunited with their families in the coming days, the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations, said.
Qatar’s role in the negotiations, which lasted several months, came at the request of the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian children passed through Qatar’s Embassy in Moscow and took different routes home. Some traveled or were scheduled to travel from Russia to Ukraine via Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Others went through Belarus.
The travel arrangements involved several types of transport, including diplomatic convoy, train and a privately chartered plane through Qatar, the official said.
“We welcome today’s positive news, about the reunification of children with their families in Ukraine through Qatari mediation efforts,” Lolwah Al-Khater, Qatar’s minister of state for international cooperation said in a statement. In recent weeks, Qatari officials have been in “continuous dialogue with our Ukrainian and Russian counterparts,” she said.
The reunifications mark a major development in what has become one of the most contentious and sensitive issues since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
They also shine a diplomatic spotlight on Qatar. The small Gulf country has often served as a key negotiator in global crises and could play an outsize role in negotiations regarding the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
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In March, judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, and accused them of war crimes, saying the two bear individual responsibility for the “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer” of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the arrest warrants as “outrageous and unacceptable” but also irrelevant for Russia as a matter of law because Russia is not a party to the International Criminal Court.
At that time the warrants were issued, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said Ukraine was investigating some 16,000 cases of forced deportations of children.
Putin approved a decree in May 2022 making it easier for Russian families to adopt Ukrainian children taken from the war zone and Lvova-Belova was among the Russians to do so, adopting a boy from the besieged city of Mariupol.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, who also serves as foreign minister, visited Moscow in June, where he met with Putin and other high-ranking officials.
The following month, he visited Ukraine, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pledged $100 million of humanitarian aid for health, education and demining efforts. During that visit, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal publicly thanked Qatar for its willingness to mediate the return of Ukrainian children from Russia.
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The full scope of the transfer of children to Russia is not clear. The official said a Ukrainian list contains the names of thousands of children while a Russian list merely has hundreds — a discrepancy that may make it difficult to find and return all of the children sought by Ukraine.
Forcibly moving children or stripping them of their identity is generally considered to be a war crime, but the ICC warrants are unlikely to result in any court appearances unless Putin or Lvova-Belova travel to a country willing to arrest them.
Putin skipped a summit meeting of leaders of the BRICS countries in South Africa in August because of concerns he might be detained. Last week, he made a rare trip abroad to Kyrgyzstan.
The four Ukrainian children returning home this week are the first to be released as part of Qatar’s negotiations because “all parties agreed they found their parents, documents all matched [and] they could be reunited,” the official said.
If all goes smoothly, the official added, it could pave the way for other returns.
Qatar News Agency photos reviewed by The Washington Post ahead of publication showed a young boy, his face blurred, sitting between his grandmother and Lvova-Belova. Other photos showed him hugging and shaking the hand of a Qatari diplomat.
The 2-year-old, who will return to the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine, was in the hospital — and just 6 months old — when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 and “lost contact with his mother,” according to the official.
The two have since been reunited in Russia and are expected to travel to Ukraine this week. Details of how or when the then-infant was transferred to Russian custody are unclear. Russian forces occupied some parts of Zhytomyr region in the first weeks of the war before being forced to retreat.
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A 7-year-old boy, who has been staying in a children’s home in Russia, was recently reunited with his grandmother, who traveled to Russia through Estonia, the official said. The pair is now on their way back to Ukraine. The boy’s mother, who was arrested in Russia, remains in custody there. It was not clear when or why she was detained.
The group also includes a 9-year-old boy who was staying with his grandparents in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region when Russia invaded and occupied the area, including the regional capital. The boy is expected to travel back to Ukraine on Wednesday.
The 17-year-old, whose family was unable to come to Russia to retrieve her, is also expected to reunite with her relatives on Wednesday.
Some other Ukrainian children held in Russia have also been released to their parents on a case-by-case basis, usually after a relative traveled to Russia and personally escorted them home, a task that can be difficult, dangerous and financially impossible for many Ukrainian families.
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