Ukraine president says edging closer to prisoner swap deal with Putin

19th April 2016, Comments 0 comments

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday said he had made progress towards agreeing a deal with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to swap jailed pilot Nadiya Savchenko for two alleged Russian soldiers.

"On the basis of preliminary developments I think that we managed to agree a specific formula for freeing Nadiya," Poroshenko told journalists following a phone call with Putin late Monday.

Ukrainian military pilot Savchenko was jailed by a Russian court in March after being convicted of the murder of two Russian journalists who died covering the pro-Moscow rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

A long-mooted exchange of Savchenko for the Russian prisoners appeared closer at hand after a court in Kiev on Monday convicted the two Russians of fighting alongside the rebels who took up arms against Ukraine's Western-backed government in 2014.

Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov and captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev received 14-year jail sentences.

Poroshenko has already offered to swap the pair for Savchenko, who is currently refusing all food and liquid in protest at her 22-year sentence.

"The court yesterday announced its decision on the Russian military intelligence officers -- Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov -- and this verdict opens up specific possibilities to start the process of an exchange," Poroshenko said.

"But I would very much ask you to avoid any speculation on this subject, about the time it will take for any return and any further steps," Poroshenko said.

Ukraine insists the two Russian fighters were serving members of an elite Russian military intelligence unit when they were captured in May last year, but Moscow says they had quit the army before crossing the border.

Savchenko -- who has become a national hero at home -- was convicted over her alleged involvement in the deaths of two Russian state television reporters killed in a mortar strike in June 2014. Russia claimed she was the "spotter" who helped Ukrainian forces target the reporters.

The Kremlin confirmed Tuesday that Putin and Poroshenko had discussed the fates of Savchenko and the two Russians during their phone call but gave no hint that a deal was on the cards.

Savchenko began refusing all food and liquids in protest at her sentence on April 6 and her health is believed to be deteriorating rapidly.

"Yesterday I drew Putin's attention to the critical condition of Savchenko's health," Poroshenko said, adding he was willing to send his presidential jet to collect her.

The cases of the pilot and the alleged Russian soldiers have deepened the rift between Kiev and Moscow, which are already locked in a bitter feud over the Kremlin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and alleged responsibility for the war in east Ukraine that has left nearly 9,200 people dead.

© 2016 AFP

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