Ukraine and Russia exchange prisoners in landmark deal
BBC: A long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine has been completed.
Planes from the two countries brought the freed inmates to Moscow and Kiev.
A total of 70 prisoners were involved, including 24 Ukrainian sailors, journalists and – controversially – a “person of interest” over the downing of a plane which killed 298 people. The swap is hoped to ease tensions between the two neighbours amid a conflict now in its fifth year.
Relations deteriorated dramatically in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and Russian-backed rebels began an insurgency in two regions of eastern Ukraine.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In April Ukrainians elected a new president. Volodymyr Zelensky said his top priority was to end the conflict.
Russian officials have said progress towards a prisoner release is vital for improving the “atmosphere surrounding a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis”.
Negotiations on the extremely sensitive issue were held in complete secrecy, with both Ukrainian and Russian officials stressing that any leaks could derail the swap.
On 30 August, Ukraine’s new prosecutor shared a Facebook post suggesting a swap had begun. This was later denied by President Zelensky’s office.
The list of those freed by Russia includes 24 Ukrainian sailors whom Russia detained off Crimea in November last year.
They were captured along with three naval ships as they attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait, the only route to access to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. Shots were fired by the Russian navy during the operation, injuring several Ukrainians.
In May an international tribunal ordered Russia to release the sailors and vessels.
Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, jailed for 20 years in 2015 for plotting terrorist acts in Crimea in a trial condemned as political by the US and EU, has also arrived home. He was considered Ukraine’s number one political prisoner in Russia.
Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist detained in Moscow in 2016 for what Russia described as “conducting espionage activities”, was among those freed.
Also on the list are two far-right Ukrainian activists, Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh, both arrested in Russia in 2014. They were accused of fighting on the side of Chechen rebels in the first Chechen war in the 1990s and were later jailed.
Russia has not officially confirmed the names of its freed citizens. But the most significant and controversial person Ukraine was expected to send to to Russia is Volodymyr Tsemakh, reportedly a commander of air defences for Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Tsemakh, 58, is a “person of interest” in the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 shooting down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which led to the deaths of all 298 people on board.