Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited swap of 70 prisoners on Saturday, in a deal hailed by President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “first step” towards ending their conflict.
Planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev, where relatives waiting at the airport broke into applause.
Among those swapped were 24 Ukrainian sailors, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Russian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky.
Ukraine’s SBU security service confirmed that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with Russian-backed separatists considered a key witness in the downing of flight MH17, was also released as part of the swap.
Zelensky’s election in April has raised hopes that the stalled peace process could be revived.
The comedian-turned-politician vowed during his campaign to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the exchange would be “a huge step towards normalising relations” with Kiev.
Sailors, filmmaker, journalist
The release of Sentsov will be seen as a major victory for Kiev. The 43-year-old was Ukraine’s most famous political prisoner and the subject of a star-studded international campaign calling for his release.
He was arrested in 2014 and had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony for planning ‘terrorist attacks’ in Crimea.
“I thank all the people who have fought for us,” Sentsov said at the airport in Kiev.
The sailors, including two members of Ukraine’s SBU security services, were detained last year when Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea.
Among those handed over to Russia was Vyshynsky, a journalist at Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency who was facing charges of “high treason” but was released on bail late last month.
The release of Tsemakh, an alleged air defence specialist for pro-Russian separatists, prompted concern from the Netherlands as he is considered a person of interest in the MH17 case.
The Malaysia Airlines passenger plane travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
France has pushed for a resolution to the conflict, calling for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany later this month.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for fresh efforts to implement the 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal, "in order to secure the liberation of all prisoners taken in this conflict."
On Monday, Le Drian heads to the Russian capital along with France’s defence minister for the first high-level "2+2"talks with their Russian counterparts since Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
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