Russia and Ukraine conducted a major prisoner exchange that freed 35 people detained in each country and flew them to the other, a deal that could help advance Russia-Ukraine relations and end five years of fighting in Ukraine's east.
Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited swap of 70 prisoners on Saturday, in a deal hailed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a "first step" towards ending their conflict.
Planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev, where relatives waiting at the airport broke into applause.
"We have taken the first step," Zelenskiy said on the tarmac after greeting and hugging former prisoners at the airport. "We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war."
Zelenskiy greeted the freed prisoners as they stepped down from the airplane that had brought them from Moscow to Kyiv's Boryspil airport. Relatives waiting on the tarmac surged forward to hug their loved ones.
Most of the ex-detainees appeared to be in good physical condition, although one struggled down the steps on crutches and another was held by the arms as he slowly navigated the steps.
Among those swapped were 24 Ukrainian sailors, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Russian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky.
Ukraine's SBU security service confirmed that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with Russian-backed separatists considered a key witness in the downing of flight MH17, was also released as part of the swap.
Dozens of lawmakers urged Ukraine's president not to make Tsemakh one of their country's 35 traded prisoners.
Critics saw freeing Tsemakh as an act of submissiveness to Russia, but the exchange "allows Zelenskiy to fulfil one of his main pre-election promises," Ukrainian analyst Vadim Karasev told The Associated Press.
TRT World speaks to journalist Julia Chapman.
The Netherlands said Saturday it had pressed Kiev in vain to drop the handover to Russia of Tsemakh.
The Dutch government contacted Ukraine "several times and at the very highest level" to prevent the handover of the suspected air defence specialist for pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a letter to parliament.
Blok added that he "regretted" Kiev's decision.
Blok said authorities had had the opportunity to question Tsemakh, 58, before he left for Russia but the Netherlands still "deeply regretted" his handover.
Piet Ploeg, chairman of the Dutch MH17 victim's foundation told AFP: "Of course we're not happy with the transfer of Mr Tsemakh to Russia but we understand it's a very difficult dilemma for Ukraine."
It looks "very suspicious," Ploeg said, adding that "from our point of view, it's kind of obstruction from Russia."
The Malaysia Airlines passenger plane travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
TRT World speaks to Peter Zalmayev from the Eurasia Democracy Initiative.
Anticipation had been building for days for the exchange, which involved weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Relations between Kiev and Moscow nose-dived in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow backed separatists in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Fighting there has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past five years.
Zelenskiy's election in April has raised hopes that the stalled peace process could be revived.
The comedian-turned-politician vowed during to campaign to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the exchange would be "a huge step towards normalising relations" with Kiev.
Sailors, filmmaker, journalist
The release of Sentsov will be seen as a major victory for Kiev. The 43-year-old was Ukraine's most famous political prisoner and the subject of a star-studded international campaign calling for his release.
He was arrested in 2014 and had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony for planning "terrorist attacks" in Crimea.
"I thank all the people who have fought for us," Sentsov said at the airport in Kiev.
The sailors, including two members of Ukraine's SBU security services, were detained last year when Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea.
Among those handed over to Russia was Vyshynsky, a journalist at Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency who was facing charges of "high treason" but was released on bail late last month.
World leaders hail swap
US President Donald Trump on Saturday congratulated Russia and Ukraine on the long-awaited prisoner swap.
"Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace," Trump said in a tweet. "Congratulations to both countries!"
Trump said in a tweet that the move was "very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace."
Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Ukrainian director Senstov's release by Russia as part of a landmark prisoner swap.
"I hail the release of film-maker Oleg Sentsov under a prisoner exchange conducted today between Russia and Ukraine. We have always been by his side," he said in a tweet.
Je salue la libération du cinéaste Oleg Sentsov, dans le cadre de l’échange de prisonniers conduit aujourd’hui entre la Russie et l’Ukraine. Nous avons toujours été à ses côtés.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) September 7, 2019