Ukrainian pilot freed by Russia protests for return of prisoners of war

  • AFP, Kiev
  • Updated: Aug 02, 2016 16:45 IST
Ukrainian pilot and MP Nadiya Savchenko attends a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine. (Reuters File Photo)

A Ukrainian pilot released from a Russian jail in May launched a fresh hunger strike on Tuesday in protest over Kiev’s failure to secure the return of other prisoners of war in the separatist east.

A Russian court sentenced the 35-year-old army helicopter navigator Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in prison in March over the 2014 killing of two Russian journalists in the Ukrainian war zone.

Her detention was based on flimsy and often contradictory evidence that turned her into a national hero and brought international attention to her cause.

She was swapped for two Russian soldiers and has since assumed a seat in Ukraine’s parliament and made a number of highly-charged statements protesting the Western-backed authorities’ failure to settle a 27-month war that has claimed nearly 9,500 lives.

One of Savchenko’s biggest causes has been ensuring the release of more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers captured by pro-Russian insurgents who control swathes of the former Soviet republic’s industrial southeast.

“As of today, I again announce a hunger strike in response to the inability of all those in power the world over to release Ukrainians from captivity,” she told reporters.

“The strike will continue until a positive result is achieved.”

Savchenko added that she also wanted dozens of “political prisoners” returned from Russia and Crimea through talks between Moscow and Kiev -- two foes whose relations have been frozen since the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation in March 2014.

Ukraine’s historic February 2014 pro-EU revolution was followed by its loss of Crimea to Russia and the onset of a conflict that Moscow denies plotting or backing in reprisal for the geopolitical loss of its western neighbour.

Savchenko staged repeated hunger strikes during her detention in Russia that at times stretched on for weeks.

Some opinion polls show her now ranking as one of Ukraine’s most trusted politicians.

But she has made enemies among some powerful fellow lawmakers for calling for talks with pro-Russian insurgents that could offer them broader autonomy and end the war.

Mediator role

Savchenko said she was ready to travel east and speak to the revolts’ leaders in order to get the stalled prisoner swap process moving again.

Prisoner exchanges have been delayed on repeated occasions due to the strong mutual mistrust between the rebels and Kiev.

“I have said a thousand times: I am ready to go there -- undercover or not -- in order to achieve results,” Savchenko said.

She added that mothers of captured soldiers intended to stage a protest outside Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s office next Monday to demonstrate their frustration with his inability to keep his promise and return the captives home.

A full prisoner swap was one of the clauses of a February 2015 peace deal that neither side has respected and thus failed to resolve one of Europe’s bloodiest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars.

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