Ukrainian pilot resumes drinking water after prank letter

Ukrainian pilot starts drinking water, continues hunger strike
Ukrainian pilot starts drinking water, continues hunger strike

Moscow (AFP) - A hunger-striking Ukrainian military pilot on trial in Russia resumed drinking water Thursday after receiving a prank letter claiming to be from Ukraine's president, asking her to end her action, her defence team said.

Nadiya Savchenko will continue a week-long hunger strike until the verdict later this month, said her lawyer Mark Feigin.

Her lawyers said she acted on a written request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, but it emerged later that the letter came from a celebrity prankster accused of having ties to the Russian security services.

"Nadezhda halted only a 'dry' hunger strike," Feigin told AFP. "She will be fasting until the verdict is announced," he said, using the Russian version of her name.

- 'Ending farce'-

Her lawyers said Wednesday that the health of the 34-year-old aviator had deteriorated significantly, she was feverish and her temperature had spiked.

The verdict in her case is due on March 21 and 22.

Savchenko's defence team said she had decided to start drinking water following a letter from Poroshenko in which he asked her to stay healthy.

The lawyers later said the missive was fake and accused Moscow of seeking to discredit the pilot and her team.

"It was obviously a well-planned operation by the security services," said Feigin.

A prominent Russian prankster known as "Vovan" -- whose last name is Vladimir Kuznetsov -- said he and his colleague had sent a letter on behalf of Poroshenko.

"We wanted to put an end to this farce," he told AFP.

He denied he was in the employ of the Russian security services. "This is a favourite version of the Russian opposition. If I say no, no one will believe me anyway."

Last year, Vovan called Elton John, making him believe he was discussing gay rights with President Vladimir Putin.

In her reply to the "Poroshenko" letter, Savchenko said she would start drinking water following an outpouring of support from Ukrainians.

- Western concern -

"I have felt your pain, people," she said in a handwritten letter.

Rejecting both food and water is called a "dry hunger strike" in Russia and was a method of last resort for some Soviet dissidents.

Savchenko launched her dry hunger strike last Thursday in protest at delays in her controversial trial. Her defence team says she now demands to be returned to Ukraine.

Savchenko is seen by her compatriots as a symbol of resistance against the Kremlin, accused of fuelling the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has claimed more than 9,000 lives since April 2014.

The prosecution wants a 23-year jail sentence for Savchenko over the killing of two journalists from Russian state broadcaster VGTRK in shelling in Ukraine's eastern Lugansk region in June 2014, two months after the pro-Russia uprising began.

Prosecutors say she was involved in her capacity as a volunteer in a Ukrainian battalion.

She says she was kidnapped even before the attack and smuggled across the border into Russia.

Her case has caused deep concern in the West, with both the EU and the United States saying she must be released immediately.

Hundreds of angry Ukrainians picketed the Russian embassy in Kiev and pelted it with eggs and stones over the weekend.

Police in Ukraine said on Thursday several people had thrown Molotov cocktails at the Russian mission overnight, adding they opened a criminal probe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said embassy officials had limited their movements outside the mission and accused the West of turning a blind eye to the violence.

"We are not seeing any reaction from our Western colleagues," he said in an interview with REN TV, adding he would discuss the issue with US Secretary of State John Kerry.