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Qatar has brokered a deal to reunite four Ukrainian children with their families after they were separated from their parents in Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of the country.

The children, who range in age from 2 to 17, are the first to be returned to Ukraine after Qatar and several other mediators stepped up efforts over the children this summer.

One has already returned to Ukraine through the Baltic states and Poland, another is en route via Qatar with his mother, and the remaining two are expected to travel to Ukraine through Qatar later this week.

The family reunification talks are focused on thousands of Ukrainian children who were taken to Russia and held in children’s homes or adopted by Russian families.

Some of those children, including the four returned in the talks with Qatar, were stranded in Russia or Russian-controlled territory when the war broke out. Others were forcibly taken to Russia by soldiers and placed with Russian families.

Ukraine has accused the Kremlin of trying to eradicate the children’s Ukrainian identity and said the alleged abductions of up to 20,000 of them amount to genocide.

The issue led the International Criminal Court to charge Putin with war crimes in March, along with Russia’s children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova. It is so contentious that Ukraine and Russia do not speak directly on the issue.

Qatar has been part of highly sensitive back-channel talks also involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

“Over the past several weeks, we have remained in continuous dialogue with our Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, identifying areas of common interest around which to facilitate indirect negotiations,” said Lolwah Al-Khater, minister for international co-operation at Qatar’s foreign ministry.

“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,” she said.

Even as the war continues to rage with no clear end in sight more than a year and a half since Russia’s full-scale invasion, mediators and Ukraine’s western allies hope talks over issues such as the children can eventually lead to broader peace negotiations.

Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office in Kyiv, told the Financial Times in September that Ukraine had been working for several months with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abramovich to try to broker a deal on the children. He said Ukraine had engaged “many countries, from the Vatican . . . to the Global South” on the matter.

“We are working very hard,” Yermak said of the group. “It was a big job and we have a concrete road map [to bring Ukrainian children back]. I don’t just hope, I believe [that Ukrainian children will be returned through this mechanism].”

Yermak said Abramovich, who has previously mediated with Ukraine with Putin’s blessing in peace negotiations, was “working with our intelligence to help” on the matter of Ukrainian children, as well as the return of prisoners of war.

At an international summit convened in Saudi Arabia in August to seek solutions to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Yermak said he met Prince Mohammed, who was “absolutely ready and wanting to be involved”.

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