Moscow frees Ukrainian pilot in swap for Russians held in conflict

  • AFP, Kiev
  • Updated: May 26, 2016 01:36 IST
Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko talks to the media at Boryspil International airport outside Kiev, Ukraine. (REUTERS)

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko returned home to a hero’s welcome on Wednesday after nearly two years in a Russian prison, drawing a line under a damaging diplomatic spat between Moscow and Kiev.

The 35-year-old army helicopter pilot flew home as part of an apparent prisoner swap with Moscow, with two alleged Russian soldiers leaving Ukraine earlier in the day.

“I’m ready to once again give my life for Ukraine on the battlefield,” a defiant Savchenko declared as she touched down on home soil, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol.

A presidential motorcade was on standby at Kiev’s main Boryspil airport to whisk Savchenko to Poroshenko’s office where she was to be decorated by the president, two sources told AFP.

In Ukraine, she has become a symbol of resistance against what Kiev sees as Moscow’s aggression in the east and has been elected to parliament in her absence.

While in prison, she launched several hunger strikes to protest her detention, refusing both food and water during her high-profile trial in southern Russia.

She constantly defied the Russian authorities and even raised her middle finger at the court in March.

Kiev and its Western allies view Savchenko as the latest pawn in Moscow’s broader aggression against Ukraine that has seen Russia seize the Crimean peninsula and fuel the separatist uprising in 2014.

Savchenko’s return will be seen in Ukraine as a rare political victory for Poroshenko, who has been struggling with mounting economic troubles, squabbles among his allies and festering violence in the east of the ex-Soviet country.

Savchenko, an Iraq war veteran, was convicted in March over the killing of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine and sentenced to 22 years behind bars. She had been held in captivity in Russia since June 2014.

The crop-haired military helicopter pilot denies any involvement in the shelling deaths of two Russian state television reporters.

Kiev has long been pushing for a prisoner swap to free Savchenko, and Poroshenko said in late April that he hoped she would return home “in a few weeks.”

“It’s been a long and complicated road,” lawyer Nikolai Polozov said on Twitter.

“But we have been able to prove that there are no insurmountable tasks and we’ve managed to free the hostage from the jaws of Mordor,” he added, referring to a savage land in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Earlier in the day, two alleged Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, sentenced by Ukraine to 14 years in prison for fighting in the rebel-held east, arrived in Moscow, Russian national television reported.

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