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Russia And Ukraine Conduct Prisoner Exchange, Renewing Hopes For Talks

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, greets Ukrainian prisoner filmmaker Oleg Sentsov upon his arrival in Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, greets Ukrainian prisoner filmmaker Oleg Sentsov upon his arrival in Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russia and Ukraine conducted a major prisoner swap on Saturday that released 70 people who had been imprisoned in both countries, a deal aimed at easing tensions sparked by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

While several obstacles still stand in the way of peace negotiations between the two countries, the exchange renews hopes that Moscow and Kiev will hold talks. France and Germany have been working behind the scenes to make such a summit happen.

It was an emotional scene at Ukraine's Boryspil International Airport on Saturday, when 35 Ukrainian prisoners stepped off an aircraft and were reunited with their loved ones, as NPR's Lucian Kim reports. Meanwhile, a Russian plane carrying 35 people who were previously detained by Ukraine landed in Moscow.

"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.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who greeted the released prisoners at Kiev's main airport, said he is ready to schedule talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a possible resolution to the ongoing dispute.

Zelensky pledged to take all possible steps "to finish this horrible war" in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine, where violence has killed 13,000 people since 2014. The Ukrainian president, who was elected in May, has vowed to end the persistent clashes between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian rebels.

For Russia, participating in the prisoner exchange could mean a rollback of European sanctions that have been leveled against the country for its role in the conflict, Ukrainian political analyst Vadim Karasev told The Associated Press.

President Trump congratulated Ukraine and Russia on the prisoner exchange, tweeting that it could be "a first giant step to peace."

Among the prisoners released is a former commander of Russian separatists, who is suspected of playing a role in shooting down the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry denounced the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh, saying in a statement that it "seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation, Mr. Tsemakh was included in this prisoner swap."

The Russians set free 24 Ukrainian sailors who were captured by the Russian navy when they attempted to sail through the Kerch Strait near Crimea last November. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was also among those freed by the Russians. His 2015 conviction for plotting a terrorist attack has been globally condemned.

Nikolai Karpyuk, who has been in a Russian prison since 2016 after he was convicted of killing Russians in Chechnya in the 1990s, also flew on the plane from Moscow to Kiev.

"Russia was not able to break me even though they tried hard to do this," Karpyuk said upon his arrival.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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