Russia and Ukraine exchanged 70 prisoners on Saturday after months of intense negotiations, in a move seen as a starting point for fresh negotiations over a five-year conflict between the two countries.
Thirty-five people from each side including 24 Ukrainian sailors and a Russian journalist convicted of espionage were flown back to their countries, Moscow and Kiev said in separate statements.
Holding the flag of Ukraine’s navy, parents of the sailors arrested after Russia detained three ships in a clash off the coast of Crimea last year gathered at Kiev’s Boryspil airport to greet their sons who flew in just after 1:30pm.
Live television from the scene showed the sailors thanking an emotional Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, alongside others included in the 35-for-35 prisoner swap.
“I welcome all with the return of our heroes,” Mr Zelensky told the crowd. “I had a conversation with Vladimir Putin . . . we agreed on the first phase of ending the war.”
Prominent film-maker Oleg Sentsov, arrested in his native Crimea on terrorism charges soon after Russia occupied the peninsula and later deported to a Russian prison cell, was among those exchanged.
Ukrainians returned from Russia also included journalist Roman Sushchenko, Crimean activist Volodymyr Balukh, former Ukrainian army servicemen Artur Panov and Edim Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar.
Ukrainian separatist commander Volodymyr Tsemakh, identified as a “person of interest” by a Dutch-led international investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 by Russian Buk missile, was among 35 individuals Ukraine reportedly handed over to Russia.
Kirill Vyshinsky, a Russian journalist suspected of separatist activity in Ukraine, was also among those handed over to Russia.
The exchange of prisoners is viewed as a milestone in efforts to restart peace talks between Moscow and Kiev, whose relations were plunged into crisis by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. That precipitated a war in the country’s east between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces that has killed more than 13,000 people.
A successful exchange is seen as a prerequisite for fresh talks later this month between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — the so-called Normandy Four — over a peace deal. Negotiations have been stalled since 2016.
While talks over a prisoner swap were first initiated years ago, discussions gained momentum after Mr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in April and vowed to initiate fresh peace talks with Moscow.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that a swap would take place soon, describing it as “something of a compass [for relations with Kiev].”
But, in a move that underscores how complex and divisive any peace talks will be, Mr Zelensky sparked concern from western countries on Thursday with the release on bail of pro-Russian separatist Mr Tsemakh.
Dutch prosecutors had last week urged Kiev not to hand Mr Tsemakh over to Russia or to allow his escape to Ukraine’s breakaway eastern region, warning it could undermine the international investigation into the shooting down of the plane from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur using a Russian-made missile launcher.
Russia has denied involvement in the downing of the aircraft, which killed 298 people, and describes the MH17 probe findings as “dubious”.