Russia frees Ukrainian pilot Savchenko in prisoner swap

Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko arrives home after 709 days in Russian captivity.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, listens to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after she was awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal at the Presidential Office in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Updated May 26, 2016

After her release from a Russian jail in a prisoner swap, Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko was welcomed by her family and supporters at Boryspil International Airport outside Kiev, officials said on Wednesday.

Under the deal, Ukrainian authorities have also freed two Russian soldiers.

She was captured in 2014 while fighting against the Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

A Russian court sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison for the killing of two journalists.

"Huge thanks for fighting for me. I thank everyone who wished me well. Thanks to you I survived. To those who wished me ill, I survived despite you!" she said at Kiev's Boryspil International Airport.

Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko talks to the media at Boryspil International airport. (Reuters)

Who is Savchenko?

She was the first woman to graduate from Ukraine’s military aviation school.

She joined the infantry unit, Aidar Battalion, in March 2014 to fight against the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

She became a national hero for Ukrainians when she interrupted a Russian judge by singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

While in captivity she went on numerous hunger strikes, risking her life.

In her absence, she was elected a member of the Rada, the unicameral Parliament of Ukraine.

In exchange for Savchenko Ukraine released two Russian soldiers, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev.

The deal came a few weeks before the European Union is set to decide on whether to extend its sanctions against Russia.

Some analysts say the deal may help ease tensions between the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement signalling Russia’s intention to soften the relations.

"I want to... express the hope that such decisions, which are dictated first of all by humanitarian considerations, will lead to a reduction in the confrontation in the conflict zone and will help avoid such losses, which are terrible and which nobody needs," Putin said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Savchenko’s release and Ukraine's "humanitarian decision" to release the two Russians "captured on Ukrainian soil and convicted of terrorism-related charges."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that he hopes Savchenko's release "will help build trust between Ukraine and Russia."

Russia's relations with Ukraine have been strained since 2014 when the Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced out in a popular uprising.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych smile after signing an agreement in Moscow on Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Archive)

In response, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula saying that it was protecting the local Russian-speaking population from persecution by new authorities in Kiev who Russia said are backed by West.

The European Union defined the move as unlawful and imposed sanctions on Moscow.

Following these events, pro-Russian separatists started an armed rebellion in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Since then, the war has left nearly 9,200 people dead.

TRTWorld and agencies