Russia and Ukraine swap prisoners in 'first step' towards peace

High-profile figures among 35 prisoners handed over by each side

A recently exchanged Ukrainian prisoner embraces his relative upon arrival in Kiev after Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap, at Borispil International Airport, outside Kiev, Ukraine September 7, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited prisoner exchange on Saturday that was hailed by the Ukrainian president as a "first step" towards ending a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev, where relatives waiting at the airport broke into applause.

"We have taken the first step," President Volodymyr Zelensky said on the tarmac in Kiev after greeting and hugging the former prisoners. "We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war."

German's chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the prisoner exchange as a "sign of hope" and called for the implementation of a 2015 ceasefire deal that Paris and Berlin helped broker.

"This exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine is a sign of hope ... it's worth continuing the hard work to implement the Minsk accord," Ms Merkel said in a statement put out by her spokesman Steffen Seibert on Twitter.

The exchange was also welcomed by US President Donald Trump.

"Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!" Mr Trump tweeted.

France has urged renewed efforts to resolve the conflict, calling for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany later this month.

Anticipation had been building for days for the exchange, which involved weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Among those swapped were the Ukrainian filmmaker and activist Oleg Sentsov, 24 Ukrainian sailors from three naval vessels seized by Russia last year, and the Russian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky.

Ukraine's SBU security service confirmed that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with the Russian-backed separatists who was considered a key witness in the downing of a Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, was also released as part of the swap.

The Netherlands, which is leading the investigation into the missile attack on the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, said it regretted Ukraine's decision to free Mr Tsemakh, who is believed to be an air defence specialist for the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow nose-dived after Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 and Moscow backed separatists in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Fighting there has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past five years.

Mr Zelensky's election in April raised hopes that the stalled peace process could be revived.

The comedian-turned-politician vowed during to campaign to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the exchange would be "a huge step towards normalising relations" with Kiev.

The release of Mr Sentsov will be seen as a major victory for Kiev. The 43-year-old filmmaker was Ukraine's most famous political prisoner and the subject of a star-studded international campaign calling for his release.

He was arrested in 2014 and had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony for planning "terrorist attacks" in Crimea.

"I thank all the people who have fought for us," Mr Sentsov said at the airport in Kiev.

The Ukrainian sailors, including two members of the SBU security services, were detained last year when Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea.

Vyshynsky, a journalist at Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency, was facing charges of "high treason" but was released on bail late last month.