Tuesday 17 September 2019

Russia and Ukraine prisoner swap hailed as a sign of 'thaw'

Chief suspect in shooting down of Malaysian Airlines jet among prisoners returned to Russia

AFTERMATH: Workers recover the bodies of some of the 298 people murdered in the Malaysian Airlines atrocity, when Russian-supplied missiles shot the civilian jet out of the sky over Ukraine. Photo: AFP/Getty
AFTERMATH: Workers recover the bodies of some of the 298 people murdered in the Malaysian Airlines atrocity, when Russian-supplied missiles shot the civilian jet out of the sky over Ukraine. Photo: AFP/Getty

Jim Heintz

Russia and Ukraine yesterday carried out a long-awaited prisoner swap in a step that could thaw a deep freeze in relations since Moscow's annexation of the Crimea region in 2014.

While the exchange of 35 prisoners on each side could help rebuild confidence between Moscow and Kiev and allow them to start negotiating seriously on other issues, any road to a full rapprochement is likely to be long and complex.

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After lengthy negotiations, expectations have been running high for the prisoner swap, which had been described as imminent by the leaders of both countries in recent days.

Yesterday, a Russian aircraft carrying freed Russian prisoners from Kiev landed in Moscow while a Ukrainian plane with released Ukrainian prisoners aboard touched down in Kiev.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hugged and shook hands with the freed Ukrainians while Russia's Rossiya 24 TV showed Russian prisoners disembarking the plane in Moscow.

Zelensky told reporters at the Kiev airport that the swap was part of his deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said all steps had to be taken "to finish this horrible war," referring to the five-year-old conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The swap was carried out on a "35-to-35" basis, Interfax news agency quoted Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova as saying. "Ukraine has handed out 35 people to Russia, we handed out the same number to Ukraine," she 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," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Though Ukraine's demands for the return of Crimea have fallen on deaf ears in Russia, yesterday's exchange is seen in some quarters as a win for Zelensky, who swept to power this year promising to repatriate compatriots held in Russia.

The US embassy in Kiev congratulated Zelensky on bringing home the Ukrainian citizens and called on Russia to release "the many other Ukrainians who remain unjustly in Russian custody," it said in a social media post.

Russian-backed separatists continue to control a swathe of Ukraine's east in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. Zelensky has pledged to end the regular low-level clashes which persist despite a ceasefire signed in 2015.

The swap could set the stage for serious talks, even though major differences remain between the two countries. French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for a summit to discuss the issue with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.

Putin said last Thursday the exchange would be "a good step forward towards the normalisation (of relations)" with Russia's fellow former Soviet republic, adding he expected large numbers of prisoners to be involved.

Among the Ukrainians freed yesterday were 24 sailors detained by Russia during a clash in waters off Crimea last year. Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, jailed in Russia, was also in the group.

Among prisoners handed over to Moscow was Volodymyr Tsemakh, suspected of having a major involvement in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014 that killed all 298 aboard.

The airliner was on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and the Dutch government issued a statement saying it "seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation Mr Tsemakh was included in this prisoner swap".

Dutch prosecutors did get a chance to question Tsemakh before his release, it added. Ukraine's security service has identified Tsemakh as a former commander of Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

One of the 35 freed Russians brought a black and white cat with him on the flight back to Moscow, released Russian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky told RIA news agency. "It is a year and three months old, it is called Mashka," he said.

© Associated Press

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