Ukraine's Savchenko gets hero's welcome after prisoner swap with Russia

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  • Nadiya Savchenko
    Ukrainian politician

Kiev (AFP) - Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko returned home to a hero's welcome Wednesday after nearly two years in a Russian jail following a prisoner swap with Moscow that drew a line under a major diplomatic spat.

The 35-year-old army helicopter pilot flew home as part of a carefully choreographed exchange with Moscow, with two alleged Russian soldiers leaving Ukraine earlier in the day.

"I'm ready to once again give my life for Ukraine on the battlefield," a defiant Savchenko declared after she touched down on home soil, barefoot and wearing a white T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol.

Soon after the presidential plane brought the crop-haired Savchenko home, a presidential motorcade whisked her from Kiev's main Boryspil airport to Poroshenko's office where he awarded her the Hero of Ukraine order, the country's highest honour.

In Ukraine, she has become a symbol of resistance against what Kiev sees as Moscow's aggression in the east and has even been elected to parliament in absentia.

The president vowed that Ukraine would take back Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the rebel-held territory in the east of the ex-Soviet country.

"Just as we brought back Nadiya, we will bring back Donbass and Crimea under Ukraine's control," Poroshenko said, adding that she had spent 709 days as a "Russian hostage."

Speaking at the presidential administration building, Savchenko -- who was officially pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- urged Russians to fight injustice at home.

"You have to rise up from your knees," she said. "Ukraine has every right to exist despite someone's rotten soul and sick mind," she added in an apparent reference to Putin.

While in prison, the pilot launched several hunger strikes to protest her detention, refusing both food and water during her high-profile trial in southern Russia.

She constantly defied the Russian authorities and even raised her middle finger at the court in March.

- Four-way talks -

Kiev and its Western allies view Savchenko as a pawn in Moscow's broader aggression against Ukraine that has seen Russia seize the Crimean peninsula and fuel the separatist uprising in 2014.

The French presidency said Savchenko's release was agreed by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine during phone talks earlier this week.

Savchenko's return will be seen in Ukraine as a rare political victory for Poroshenko, who has been struggling with mounting economic troubles, squabbles among his allies and festering violence in the east of the ex-Soviet country.

Savchenko, an Iraq war veteran, was convicted in March over the killing of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine and sentenced to 22 years behind bars.

She had been held in captivity in Russia since June 2014.

She denies any involvement in the deaths of the two state television journalists.

Savchenko -- who was fighting in a pro-Kiev militia group against rebels in east Ukraine -- insists she was kidnapped by separatist fighters before the journalists were killed in June 2014 and then illegally smuggled to Russia.

"It's been a long and complicated road," lawyer Nikolai Polozov said on Twitter.

"But we have been able to prove that there are no insurmountable tasks and we've managed to free the hostage from the jaws of Mordor," he added, referring to a savage land in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Iryna Gerashchenko, a senior lawmaker in the Ukrainian parliament who flew to Russia to bring Savchenko home, said her return had been in the works for several weeks and that the presidency had not wanted to make any premature announcements.

"There was a strong probability that the operation might fail," she said on Facebook.

- 'Finally! -

Earlier Wednesday, two alleged Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, sentenced by Ukraine to 14 years in prison for fighting in the rebel-held east, arrived in Moscow.

Ukraine said the men were in Russian military intelligence, but Moscow denied they were serving army officers, insisting they had quit the military before heading to fight as volunteers.

Poroshenko pardoned both the men.

Putin meanwhile said the relatives of the killed Russian journalists had asked him to pardon Savchenko.

Putin was shown on television meeting Yekaterina Kornelyuk and Marianna Voloshina, the widow and sister of the journalists and thanking them for their request.

Western officials greeted Savchenko's release.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the move was "an important part of fulfilling Russia's commitments" to a series of truce agreements in eastern Ukraine.

"Finally!" Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on Twitter. "Glory to Ukraine," she said, invoking the battle cry of Ukrainian protesters who toppled a Kremlin-backed president in 2014.

EU foreign affairs supremo Federica Mogherini hailed Savchenko's release as "long awaited good news," while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "happy and relieved."

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