UPDATE 3 – Russia, Ukraine exchange prisoners


By Elena Teslova and Diyar Guldogan

MOSCOW/ANKARA(AA) – Russia and Ukraine on Saturday exchanged 70 prisoners after intense negotiations.

Thirty-five people from each side, including 24 Ukrainian sailors who were detained in the incident near the Sea of Azov last November by Russia, and Russian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky convicted of espionage, were freed.

Commenting on the exchange, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was the first step towards "unlocking a dialogue with Russia, and to an end of the conflict in the east of Ukraine".

"We agreed [with Russian President Vladimir Putin] on the first stage of unlocking our dialogue and ending the war. Today's exchange can be considered the first step in unlocking the dialogue with Russia," Zelensky said, adding that he discussed the issue with Putin in a phone talk on Saturday.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the detainees transfer "a very important step".

"It is necessary to support this attitude aiming to solve problems, and not to aggravate them as much as possible. Political will and systematic hard work bear fruit," Zakharova said on Facebook.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow broke down after Russia annexed Crimea following an illegal independence vote in 2014.

The UN, the EU, the U.S., and Turkey do not recognize Crimea as Russian territory.

Ukraine has also blamed Kremlin for separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia.

– Phone talk between Putin, Zelensky

In a phone call on Saturday, Putin and Zelensky positively assessed the exchange of prisoners and stressed its humanitarian aspect which has great importance for the normalization and improvement of bilateral relations, the Kremlin said in a statement.

"During the exchange of views on the prospects of organizing the Normandy Four summit, the President of Russia noted the need to continue comprehensive preparatory work so that the next meeting in this format would be productive and really contribute to the implementation of existing agreements at the highest level, especially the Minsk process," it said.

The presidents agreed to stay in contact in the future.

– Exchange of prisoners welcomed

Turkey welcomed the exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kiev.

"We congratulate all parties for their constructive approach, in particular the leadership of Ukraine and Russia, which contributed to this positive development," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.

Aksoy said Ankara will continue to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and all the efforts to ensure peace and stability in the region.

The EU also welcomed the release of prisoners.

"Finally! The release of Oleg #Sentsov and the Ukrainian sailors fills me with relief," European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter, calling on Russia to release all political prisoners and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, for her part, said: "This means that finally Oleg Sentsov, Pavlo Hryb, Edem Bekirov, the 24 captured Ukrainian sailors, and others whose release the European Union has called for so many times, are free and back in their country."

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu also called on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk Agreements, including the release of all prisoners.

"This is a step in the right direction," Lungescu said.