Russia and Ukraine appeared to begin an exchange of 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.
Two large buses left Moscow’s Lefortovo jail early on Saturday morning and drove under police escort to the city’s Vnukovo airport, state television footage showed, while local media reported that Russian prisoners had arrived at an airport in Kiev.
The exchange of prisoners is viewed as a major 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 Volodymyr 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 a pro-Russian separatist identified by Dutch investigators as a “person of interest” in connection with the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine that killed 298 people.
The freeing of Volodymyr Tsemakh suggested he could be part of the swap, which Russia and Ukrainian media have reported could include 35 detainees from both sides. Neither country has confirmed how many or which prisoners would be swapped.
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 and describes the MH17 probe findings as “dubious”.
Along with Mr Tsemakh, Russia is said to want Kirill Vyshinsky, a Russian journalist suspected of separatist activity in Ukraine, to be included in the prisoner swap. Ukraine has demanded the return of 24 naval sailors arrested after Russia detained three ships in a clash off the coast of Crimea last year.
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