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Russia, Ukraine in new prisoner swap

3 min

Kiev (AFP)

Russia and Ukraine swapped prisoners for the second time in less than a month Tuesday as relations between the sworn foes showed rare signs of calming in the midst of war.

The exchange involved two men that Kiev views as political prisoners and a pair of pro-Russian Ukrainians who were jailed for allegedly promoting the former Soviet republic's eastern separatists' cause.

Their release came 19 days after Ukraine's celebrated combat pilot Nadiya Savchenko was traded for two alleged Russian soldiers convicted of fighting alongside pro-Moscow insurgents during the 26-month war in Ukraine's devastated rustbelt.

The Kremlin did not explain Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to pardon Yuriy Soloshenko and Gennady Afanasyev.

Both were sent to hospital on their arrival in Kiev for treatment for chronic ailments that required immediate care.

The Kremlin also said separately that Kiev in turn had released two Ukrainian reporters -- Yelena Glishchinskaya and Vitaly Didenko -- who were convicted of promoting the pro-Moscow rebels' cause and state media reported they had flown to Russia.

RIA Novosti news agency said Glishchinskaya touched down in Moscow with her child.

The Kremlin press office told Russian news agencies that their release was "made possible thanks to the active involvement of Viktor Medvedchuk" -- a Ukrainian who has developed a personal friendship with Putin and helps lead periodic prisoner exchange talks.

- 'We did it!' -

The release of Soloshenko and Afanasyev was greeted with joy in Kiev and the pair were met by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

"My dear boys -- welcome home," Poroshenko told the two men after their arrival in hospital.

"We did it!" he added with a broad grin.

The Ukrainians' cause was far less globally known than Savchenko's -- a symbol of resistance to Russia who was recently ranked as the country's most trusted politicians by one Kiev research centre poll.

But their fate remained a sensitive subject for the pro-Western leadership whose rise was followed by Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the eastern revolt.

Afanasyev was rounded up in Crimea by Russia's security service in May 2014 along with filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and two others and slapped with terrorism charges.

The 25-year-old photographer was jailed for seven years in December 2014.

That sentence was reduced after he agreed to cooperate with investigators and pleaded guilty to all charges.

He later recanted his confession and claimed it was forced out of him under torture.

Details about 73-year-old Yuriy Soloshenko are less clear.

Media reports from both Moscow and Kiev suggest the former arms factory director was arrested in August 2014 for allegedly trying to transfer Russian weapons to Ukraine.

Soloshenko was accused of espionage and sentenced to six years in prison during a hearing that was closed to the press.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said last month that 174 people were still being illegally held by either the rebels or the Russian authorities.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed nearly 9,400 people and tattered Moscow's relations with the West.

Russia strongly denies plotting and backing the revolt in reprisal for the February 2014 ouster of Kiev's Moscow-backed leadership and Ukraine's tilt toward the West.

But the United States and the European Union both openly accuse Russia of sending active troops and heavy weapons into the Ukrainian war zone.

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