Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap could be 'first step' towards peace

7 September 2019, 14:16 | Updated: 8 September 2019, 05:33

Russia and Ukraine have completed a prisoner exchange that could be an important step towards ending the five-year military conflict between them.

Thirty-five people were released by each side before being flown to their home countries.

Among the Ukrainians freed were film director Oleg Sentsov, whose conviction for preparing terrorist attacks was criticised around the world, and 24 sailors detained by the Russian navy off the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula last year.

One of the sailors, Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 30, said: "Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing."

The Ukrainian prisoners were greeted at Kiev's Boryspil airport by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected the country's president earlier this year having promised to bring them home.

Most of them appeared to be well but a few used crutches and one was supported by the arms as he slowly left the plane.

The Russian prisoners arrived at Moscow's Vnukovo airport and, after about 15 minutes, they came off the aircraft and were driven by bus to a medical facility.

The Russian government said their identities would be released later.

But it has been confirmed that the group includes Volodymyr Tsemakh.

Tsemakh commanded a Russian separatist air defence unit in the area where a Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down in 2014 during flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people aboard.

Many Ukrainian politicians and representatives from countries who lost citizens in the attack had pleaded with President Zelenskiy not to release Tsemakh. There were also protests in Kiev against the move.

The Dutch government said it "seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation Mr Tsemakh was included in this prisoner swap".

The exchange has raised hopes that Kiev and Moscow can finally work towards a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

Since it began in 2014, the conflict has killed more than 13,000 people.

Ukrainian president Mr Zelenskiy said: "We have made the first step. It was very complicated."

Russia's foreign ministry said: "We view the agreed mutual release of persons held in Russia and Ukraine as a positive signal that should be followed by other important steps to break the impasse in the current situation in Russia-Ukraine relations."

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament's upper house, said the exchange was a move "in the direction of crossing from confrontation to dialogue, and one can only thank those thanks to whose strength this became possible".

US President Donald Trump called the prisoner exchange "perhaps a first giant step to peace".

Last month it was announced the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany would meet to discuss a possible end to the conflict.