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Ukraine, Russia exchange prisoners to improve ties

Russia and Ukraine began a long-anticipated swap of dozens of prisoners on Saturday, with government planes taking off from both countries’ capitals around the same time, a significant step toward defusing tensions between the two nations.

The swap, which included 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia in the Kerch Strait last year, was likely to be seen as a diplomatic victory both for President Vladimir Putin of Russia and for Vladimir Zelensky, who ascended to the Ukranian presidency in May.

The Ukrainian President Mr. Zelensky called the prisoner exchange “the first step to stop the war.”

The plane carrying the sailors and 11 other prisoners took off around noon local time from Vnukovo Airport near Moscow, according to Ukraine’s presidency and Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer working on their case in Russia, who announced the news on the Ukrainian television channel 112.

A similar plane departed from Borispol Airport near Kiev around the same time.

Relatives of Ukrainian prisoners freed by Russia in the exchange greeting them upon their arrival in Kiev on Saturday. Photo: Associated Press

A Ukrainian filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia on terrorism charges, was also included in the prisoner exchange, his lawyer Mark Feigin said on Twitter.

The prisoners returned to Russia included the journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, who was accused of treason in Ukraine; and Ukrainian soldiers who had deserted for Russia.

Volodymyr Tsemakh, who is suspected of having taken part in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Eastern Ukraine in 2015 that killed 298 people, was also returned by Ukraine.

The governments in Kiev and Moscow have been locked in diplomatic clashes since Russia seized Crimea, and armed Russia-backed separatists have waged a deadly struggle in Ukraine’s east.

More than 13,000 people have been killed during the conflict, a quarter of them civilians, according to the United Nations.