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Ukraine’s Zelensky lands in Saudi Arabia to push for peace and POW exchange with Russia

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DUBAI — 

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and met the kingdom’s powerful crown prince to push for a peace plan and the return of prisoners of war from Russia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to position himself as a potential mediator to end the war between Ukraine and Russia — even as Riyadh remains closely aligned with Russia on energy policies through the OPEC+ group of countries. The day before, the prince hosted Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s Duma, the lower house of its parliament, and a host of other Russian officials.

Zelensky’s trip came as Kyiv’s forces were slowly being pushed back in eastern Ukraine. Russia has gained the initiative due to its big advantage in troop numbers and weapon supplies, military analysts say, as Kyiv waits for news of new provisions from its Western partners.

The Ukrainian military said Tuesday it withdrew its forces from two more villages near Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region following intense overnight fighting, according to a Ukrainian army spokesman.

Ukrainian troops pulled back from Sieverne and Stepove, Dmytro Lykhovyi said on national television. The two villages had a population of some 100 people in total before the full-scale invasion, he said.

Ukraine continues to “rely on Saudi Arabia’s ongoing active support” in pushing forward with what has been described as a “peace formula” to end the war, which marked its second anniversary over the weekend, Zelensky said in a message on X, formerly Twitter.

Zelensky has presented a 10-point peace formula that, among other things, seeks the expulsion of all Russian forces from Ukraine and accountability for war crimes — at a time when the two sides are fighting from largely static positions along a roughly 930-mile front line. Such ideas are rejected out of hand by Moscow.

“The second topic is the return of POWs and deportees,” Zelensky wrote. “The kingdom’s leadership has already contributed to the release of our people. I am confident that this meeting will also yield results.” He also said economic cooperation would be discussed.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency said that Zelenskky arrived at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport and was met by government officials. Later footage showed Zelensky along with top officials in his government meeting with a smiling Prince Mohammed. Also on hand was Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz.

Footage showed the prince and Zelensky, both of whom speak English, talking without translators in a vast hall at a palace as other officials sat nearby.

Over the last several years, Crown Prince Mohammed has reached a detente with Iran, pursued a peace deal with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and also offered himself as a leader in other crises worldwide. That’s after facing widespread international condemnation for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe was carried out on his orders.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Ukraine immediately offered a detailed readout of the leaders’ discussions. On Monday, the kingdom described Prince Mohammed discussing “issues of common interest” with the Russian Duma leader.

“Volodin relayed the greeting and good wishes from Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Russia’s state-run Tass news agency said.

In May, Zelensky traveled to Saudi Arabia for a meeting of Arab leaders and also met then with Crown Prince Mohammed. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — all neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula — have been involved in prisoner exchanges since the war broke out in 2022.

Associated Press writer Susie Blann in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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