Russia and Ukraine complete prisoner swap, including MH17 suspect
In total 35 people were freed before being flown home.
Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov was among those freed. His conviction for preparing terrorist attacks was criticised internationally. Also freed were 24 sailors seized by the Russian navy off the Crimea last year.
The Ukrainian sailors were abducted by Russia in November last year after their vessels tried to pass through the Kerch Strait, the narrow waterway between the Russian mainland and illegally occupied Crimea. Moscow charged them with illegally entering Russian territory while Ukraine says they were in international waters.
One of the freed Ukrainian sailors, Vyacheslav Zinchenko, said: “Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing.”
The 41-year-old President Volodymyr Zelenskiy greeted them in Kiev after being elected this year having promised to bring them home.
A few used crutches and one was held by the arms as he left the plane.
The unnamed Russian prisoners were taken to a Moscow clinic.
One confirmed member of the group was Volodymyr Tsemakh who commanded a Russian separatist air-defence squad near where the Malaysian Airlines MH17 plane was shot down in 2014 while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.
Russia refused to proceed with the exchange unless Tsemakh was freed, a Ukrainian security chief said.
“Tsemakh’s absence from the exchange list automatically meant the cessation of talks with Russia,” said Ivan Bakanov, the head of the Ukrainian SBU security service, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
Bakanov said the insistence on Tsemakh’s release was “proof of Russia’s involvement in the MH17 crash”.
But he added that Kiev had no “moral right” to delay the swap any longer.
“As a state, Ukraine is showing the world that it is saving its citizens like the world’s strongest democracies,” he added.
Zelenskiy had been asked by international groups not to release Tsemakh and there were also protests in Kiev against the move.
The Netherlands said it “seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation Mr Tsemakh was included in this prisoner swap”.
“We’ve done everything. Everything we’ve been asked to do. It was complicated. I was afraid that the exchange may fall through because of this,” Zelensky said.
The president appeared to praise Russia for following through with the swap.
The former comedian said, “everything we promised and did everything without changing our agreements in the process”.
Russia has failed to answer questions about MH17. Picture credit: Wikimedia