Ukrainian pilot Savchenko back in Ukraine, pardoned by Putin

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko is back in Ukraine after being released from Russian prison in exchange for two alleged Russian soldiers.

The 35-year-old Ukrainian pilot has landed at the airport in Kiev after being released from Russian prison, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Twitter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned Savchenko, who was sentenced to 22 years in Russian prison in March, a spokesman said.

Kiev reportedly exchanged two alleged Russian soldiers, who had been taken into custody in Ukraine, for Savchenko in a prisoner swap.

Savchenko, one of the most well-known prisoners of the Ukraine conflict, had been detained by Russia since mid-2014, accused of giving Ukrainian national forces the coordinates for an attack in which two Russian journalists were killed.

She loudly sang Slavic folk songs as she was sentenced in March for murder, attempted murder and illegally crossing the Russian border during the conflict over Ukraine's two eastern-most regions, Russian state news agency TASS reported at the time.

The head of Russia’s human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, called the exchange a serious step in implementing a fragile ceasefire deal agreed in Minsk last year.

Western European politicians also welcomed the exchange.

"I hope and wish that today's exchange contributes to better trust between Ukraine and Russia and sets a positive impulse for Minsk II," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, referring to the ceasefire agreement.

Pedro Agramunt, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, also hoped the exchange will benefit the nations' relations.

“I hope that both sides can now build on the goodwill that made this possible in order to make further progress on implementing the Minsk agreements,” he said.

Despite protest from Moscow, a court in Kiev had sentenced the alleged soldiers from Russia, who were part of the exchange, to 14 years in prison each. They allegedly fought in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine for pro-Russian insurgents.

A rebellion in Ukraine's two eastern-most regions erupted in March 2014, shortly after Kiev ousted its pro-Russian president amid street protests calling for closer ties with the West.

Moscow responded by annexing Crimea in southern Ukraine and supporting a pro-Russian separatist rebellion that continues to simmer in Ukraine's east.

Last update: Wed, 25/05/2016 - 19:41

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