Rus­sia, Ukraine conduct mass pris­oner ex­change

Western lead­ers say swap may be ‘first step’ to ease ten­sions

The Korea Times - - WORLD -

KIEV (AFP) — Rus­sia and Ukraine made a long-awaited swap of 70 pris­on­ers on Satur­day, a deal hailed as a first step to­wards end­ing five years of ten­sions and con­flict.

Two planes car­ry­ing 35 pris­on­ers from each side landed si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Moscow and Kiev, where the pas­sen­gers emerged un­der sunny skies.

“We have taken the first step,” Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy said on the tar­mac af­ter greet­ing and hug­ging for­mer de­tainees. “We have to take all the steps to fin­ish this hor­ri­ble war.” In emo­tional scenes at Kiev’s Bo­ryspil air­port, fam­ily mem­bers em­braced and handed flow­ers to the for­mer pris­on­ers, many weep­ing with joy.

Among those swapped were 24 Ukrainian sailors, Ukrainian film­maker Oleg Sentsov and Rus­sian-Ukrainian jour­nal­ist Kyrylo Vyshyn­sky.

“I am over­flow­ing with hap­pi­ness,” Natalya Mokryak, the mother of one of the sailors, told AFP at the air­port. “I have fi­nally seen this come true.”

Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion showed the Rus­sian pris­on­ers emerg­ing from the plane at Moscow’s Vnukovo-2 air­port used for govern­ment flights.

Among those handed over to Moscow was Vladimir Tse­makh — a fighter with Moscow-backed sep­a­ratists con­sid­ered a key wit­ness in the down­ing of flight MH17 — who was re­turned home de­spite pleas from the Nether­lands.

Western lead­ers wel­comed the ex­change, with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump say­ing it could be “a first giant step to peace” and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel call­ing it a “sign of hope.”

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron hailed the re­lease of Sentsov in par­tic­u­lar, say­ing in a tweet that “we have al­ways been by his side.”

An­tic­i­pa­tion had been build­ing for the swap, which in­volved weeks of be­hind-the-scenes ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Re­la­tions be­tween Kiev and Moscow nose-dived in 2014 when Rus­sia an­nexed Crimea and Moscow backed sep­a­ratists in the eastern in­dus­trial re­gions of Donetsk and Lu­gansk. Fight­ing there has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past five years.

Ze­len­skiy’s elec­tion in April has raised hopes that a stalled peace process could be re­vived.

The co­me­dian-turned-politi­cian vowed to have Ukrainian pris­on­ers in Rus­sia re­turned and has said that 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 nor­mal­iz­ing re­la­tions” with Kiev.

Satur­day’s swap was “very im­por­tant,” Rus­sian for­eign min­istry spokeswoma­n Maria Zakharova said.

“It’s nec­es­sary to main­tain this drive to solve prob­lems as much as pos­si­ble,” she said.

The re­lease of film­maker 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, where he was greeted by his teenage daugh­ter who wept and smiled.

“I am hop­ing that the rest of the pris­on­ers will be re­leased soon,” he added.

The sailors, in­clud­ing two mem­bers of Ukraine’s SBU se­cu­rity ser­vices, were detained last year when Rus­sia seized three Ukrainian ves­sels off Crimea.


Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy, right, greets Ukrainian pris­on­ers upon their ar­rival at Bo­ryspil air­port, out­side Kyiv, Ukraine, Satur­day. Planes car­ry­ing pris­on­ers freed by Rus­sia and Ukraine have landed in the coun­tries’ cap­i­tals, in an ex­change that could be a sig­nif­i­cant step to­ward im­prov­ing re­la­tions be­tween Moscow and Kyiv.

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