Jailed Ukraine pilot heads home under prisoner swap with Russia: sources

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[May 25, 2016]  By Maria Tsvetkova and Pavel Polityuk
 
 MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko was heading home on a plane from Russian captivity on Wednesday, part of an exchange for two Russians detained in Ukraine, two sources close to the swap told Reuters.

Handing over Savchenko, whose release has been demanded by Western governments and who has become a national hero in Ukraine, would ease tensions between Moscow and the West a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia.

There was no official confirmation of the exchange, but the two sources close to the arrangements said it was already underway.

A plane was en route from Russia to Ukraine carrying Savchenko home, according to one of the sources. "They are coming back," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In parallel, the two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were in the process of being returned to Russian soil, the second source close to the swap said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was to make a statement later on Wednesday, his office said.

Earlier, Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Poroshenko himself had flown to Russia to collect Savchenko, but there was no confirmation of that in Kiev or Moscow.

SYMBOL OF RESISTANCE

Savchenko, a military pilot, volunteered to fight with a ground unit against pro-Moscow separatists who rose up against Kiev's rule in eastern Ukraine.

She was captured and put on trial in southern Russia, charged with complicity in the deaths of Russian journalists who were killed by artillery while covering the conflict.

A Russian court in March sentenced her to 22 years in jail. While in a Russian jail, she was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament and is widely seen in Ukraine as a symbol of resistance against Russia.

Yerofeyev and Alexandrov both told Reuters in interviews last year they were Russian special forces soldiers who were captured while carrying out a secret operation in eastern Ukraine.

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Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

But Moscow, which denies it had troops in eastern Ukraine, has never publicly acknowledged that the two men were acting on its orders.

Russia's relations with its neighbour Ukraine have been toxic since an uprising in 2014 forced out the Moscow-backed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich and installed a pro-Western administration.

Russia then annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula. Moscow said it was protecting the local Russian-speaking population from persecution by the new authorities in Kiev, but Western governments called it an illegal land-grab and imposed sanctions on Moscow.

Soon after, pro-Moscow separatists began an armed separatist rebellion in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, an area with a large-Russian speaking community. Fighting between the rebels and Ukraine's forces killed thousands of people.

A fragile ceasefire has been in place since last year, but there is no permanent settlement to the conflict.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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