A major prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine took place on Saturday after lengthy negotiations between the two countries.
Planes carrying the prisoners landed at almost the same time at Vnukovo airport in Moscow and at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport.
In Kyiv, relatives of the prisoners were seen waving and applauding on the tarmac while President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was waiting at the airport.
Expectations of the swap, described as imminent by the two countries’ leaders in recent days, had been running high.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that talks with Ukraine on a prisoner swap were being finalized and that the exchange could involve a large number of people.
Putin also said the swap would be “a huge step towards normalising relations” with Ukraine, which were broken off after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for a summit to discuss this issue with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
The prisoner swap is a major domestic triumph for Ukraine’s new president. A comedian-turned-politician, Zelenskiy came to power earlier this year after promising to bring Ukrainian prisoners home from Russian jails.
Thirty-five prisoners in total are reportedly being released by either side, however neither side has confirmed the identities of the prisoners.
However, relatives and lawyers of the prisoners confirmed the identities of some of those involved.
Filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is among the 35 Ukrainians transferred from Moscow to Kyiv, his lawyer said on Twitter.
Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer who heads the defence team of 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia during a clash near Crimea last year, told AFP that “according to my information, they were put on a bus. All 24 of them.” He said he expected the men to arrive in Ukraine “in the next few hours.”
Among those reportedly handed over to Moscow is Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former commander of separatist forces in Ukraine’s east, who is suspected of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing 298 people.
He was released by a Ukrainian court on Thursday pending trial.
Dutch prosecutors have urged Kyiv not to allow Tsemakh to travel to Russia, fearing this could jeopardize the investigation into the air disaster.