A demonstration in support of the safe return of children taken from Ukraine during the war, in Brussels in February. Credit...Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
Four Ukrainian children who had been separated from their families and taken to Russia have been reunited with them, the government of Qatar announced on Monday, saying it had acted as a mediator in negotiations for the return of the children.
Qatar’s foreign ministry said that a “successful family reunification process” had been completed this week in the case of the four, “marking an important step toward reuniting children with their families.” There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian authorities.
The removal of children to Russia has been one of the most painful issues for Ukraine since Moscow launched its invasion last year; Ukraine’s government as well as parents and humanitarian groups have made strenuous efforts to get the children back.
The Ukrainian authorities have put the number of children deported at more than 16,000. In many cases, children in areas that Russian forces had seized were invited to go on holiday camps in the occupied region in southern Ukraine, near Crimea, or in Russia, and were then not returned. Sometimes parents were told that the children would be safer away from the fighting.
The International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and accused him of responsibility for the abductions. The court also issued a warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, who has overseen the program, sponsored by the Kremlin, under which children have been taken to Russia.
The statement by Qatar’s foreign ministry gave no further details of its involvement. It contained no criticism of Russia and did not say how the children had come to be there. “Qatar stands firmly in support of the efforts made by both the Ukrainian and Russian sides to safeguard the rights and well-being of the children affected by the ongoing crisis,” the statement said, adding that it showed Qatar’s commitment to promote peace.
A diplomat briefed on the process said that Qatar had responded to a Ukrainian request for involvement and hinted that further returns were possible. The children ranged in age from 2 to 17, the diplomat said, adding that the Russian families with whom the children had been placed consented to their return.
The diplomat said that one of the children was a 2-year-old from the Zhytomyr region in northern Ukraine who had been separated from his mother near the start of the invasion. “He has been reunited with his mother in Russia” and will soon travel to Ukraine, said the diplomat, who did not say where the two were separated.
In many cases, Ukrainian families have struggled to get information about what happened to their children after they had been taken away, adding to their anguish.
It was unclear whether the return of a handful of children signaled the start of a broader mediation role by Qatar in the conflict. But in one example of its role as a potential broker, last month, Russia proposed that Qatar act as a transit point for the shipment of Ukrainian grain to countries in Africa and the Middle East that are facing a hunger crisis. The prospect has yet to bear fruit.
Qatar’s role in securing the return of the children is the latest example of the country’s efforts to position itself as a diplomatic player with clout disproportionate to its size.
“Our hope is that the commitment shown to this initiative by both sides will pave the way for further dialogue aimed at de-escalating tensions and building trust between the two parties,” said Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, Lolwah Al-Khater, in a statement about the children’s return.
The country, a Gulf monarchy, has a population of fewer than three million people and lies between two much larger neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with which it shares a maritime border.
But it has benefited immensely from vast reserves of natural gas and for years the government — which hosted the soccer World Cup last year, adding to the country’s prominence — has presented itself as a mediator with the ability to talk to difficult parties like Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that controls the Gaza Strip and maintains an office in Qatar.
Qatari officials are currently attempting to mediate the release of hostages taken by Hamas after gunmen from the group surged into southern Israel and killed more than 1,300 people, starting the current war.
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