A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine got under way on Saturday morning, Russian state media said.
Details of the exchange have been kept under wraps, but it is believed that both countries will release about 35 prisoners.
Russia is expected to hand over 24 Ukrainian sailors that it took captive during a naval clash off the coast of Crimea last year.
Rossiya 24, a Russian state television channel, confirmed that the exchange had begun. It broadcast images of two buses with tinted windows leaving Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. The buses later arrived at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, while a plane with the Ukrainian flag was spotted on the runway. Relatives of the Ukrainian prisoners gathered at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport.
The Ukrainian sailors were seized in November after their navy vessels tried to pass through the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway between the Russian mainland and Crimea. Moscow has charged them with illegally entering Russian territory, while Ukraine says they were in international waters. “According to my information, they were put on a bus. All 24 of them,” Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer for the men, told Agence France-Presse. He said they were due to arrive in Ukraine later on Saturday.
Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film-maker who Russia sentenced to 20 years on controversial “terrorism” charges in 2015, is also reported to be heading home to Kyiv. Sentsov was recently transferred to Lefortovo prison from a penal colony in Siberia.
Ukraine is expected to free Kyrylo Vyshynsky, a Ukrainian-born journalist who previously worked for Russia’s state-run Ria Novosti news agency in Kyiv. Vyshynsky was charged with treason by Ukraine, but was released on bail last month.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said on Thursday that the exchange would be a major step towards normalising relations between the two former Soviet states. He said he expected a large number of prisoners would be set free.
This is the first major prisoner exchange between the two countries since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Kremlin-backed separatists carved out two so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. More than 13,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict. Putin denies sending Russian troops to Ukraine and says any Russians fighting there are “volunteers”.
The prisoner swap is a major domestic triumph for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A comedian with no previous political experience, Zelenskiy came to power earlier this year after promising to bring Ukrainian prisoners home from Russian jails.
The much-anticipated exchange appeared to have stalled last week amid secret negotiations on the numbers and identities of the prisoners. Talks picked up pace, however, after a Ukrainian court on Thursday controversially freed Vladimir Tsemakh, a former pro-Russian separatist commander who is a potential suspect and key witness in the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in July 2014.
Tsemakh, who previously commanded a separatist air defence unit, was seized by Ukrainian special forces at his home in east Ukraine in July and brought to Kyiv. He had previously indicated that he hid evidence of a Buk missile system, the kind Dutch investigators say shot down the Malaysian jet, killing all 298 people on board.
International investigators say the Buk was transported from a Russian military facility to east Ukraine on the day of the attack. Russia is reported to have insisted on Tsemakh’s release as a condition for Saturday’s prisoner exchange.
Kyiv is also freeing Maksim Odintsov and Alexander Baranov, two former Ukrainian servicemen that it says defected to Russia during the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea.