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War in Ukraine

Qatar to return three Ukrainian children from Russia after repatriation talks

Qatar to return three Ukrainian children from Russia after repatriation talks
Ukrainian refugees and Romanian civil rights activists protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, outside the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Bucharest, Romania, 14 October 2023. Russian troops entered Ukrainian territory on 24 February 2022, starting a conflict that has provoked destruction and a humanitarian crisis. EPA-EFE/ROBERT GHEMENT

DOHA, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Three Ukrainian children who had been taken to Russia are to be released to Qatari diplomats in Moscow this week under a mechanism Qatar has set-up with the goal of returning many more children from Russia to Ukraine, a Qatari official briefed on the plans told Reuters on Monday.

Qatar on Friday facilitated the return of another Ukrainian child, aged 7, who was reunited with his grandmother and is en route to Ukraine via Estonia, the official said. The other three children are a boy aged 2, a 9-year-old boy, and a girl aged 17.

Kyiv has identified 20,000 children as taken to Russia or Russian-held territory without the consent of family or guardians.

The return of these first four children tests a system the Gulf Arab state established after months of secret talks with Moscow and Kyiv, according to the Qatari official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the process.

Qatar’s minister of state for international cooperation, Lolwah Al Khater, confirmed the mediation in a statement and described this week’s repatriations as “only a first step”.

Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, shared a short initial list of Ukrainian children to be returned with a team of Qatari diplomats who verified each child’s identity, the official said.

It is not clear how many additional children Russia will authorize to return to Ukraine via the Qatari mechanism after the first four, the official said.

About 400 children have been returned to Ukraine since Moscow’s invasion began in February 2022, but the United Nations human rights agency raised concerns last week that there was no system to facilitate the return.

The first four children “were the first ones verified and (Russia and Ukraine) agreed they found their parents,” the official said.

Qatari diplomats will accompany the children over the border with Estonia, Latvia or Belarus or to Qatar by chartered jet before returning them to Ukraine, the official said.

“Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have been cooperative,” the Qatari official said, adding that Ukraine approached the Gulf Arab state to mediate with Russia over the children.

Qatar, a tiny but wealthy energy powerhouse that holds ambitious foreign policy goals, has recently been under the global diplomacy spotlight for brokering a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap and mediating between Israel and Hamas militants over the potential release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

The 7-year-old boy who was reunited with his grandmother on Friday had been in Russia at a children’s home “as a result of being separated from his mother who was in Russia when the war broke out,” the official said.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant in March for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.

Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations in New York, Vassily Nebenzia, said shortly afterwards, however, that Russia did not prevent children contacting relatives and friends, wherever they lived, and that parents could apply for help to be reunited.

By Andrew Mills

(Reporting by Andrew Mills; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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