March 10, 2016 / 9:35 AM / in 2 years

EU tells Russia to free hunger-striking Ukrainian pilot Savchenko

Former Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a glass-walled cage as she attends a court hearing in the southern border town of Donetsk in Rostov region, Russia, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The European Union’s foreign policy chief on Thursday told Russia to free Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot accused over the killing of two Russian journalists, as Savchenko relaxed a hunger strike by starting to take liquids.

The 34-year-old is regarded as a national hero by many Ukrainians, but is charged in Russia with complicity in the killing of two Russian TV journalists during fighting between Ukrainian government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. She denies wrongdoing.

On Thursday, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, called on the Russian government to set Savchenko free, following similar calls from U.S. officials.

“This is no longer just a judicial or political case: now it’s a matter of human compassion,” Mogherini said in a statement released by the bloc’s Moscow embassy.

“Her health condition is deteriorating rapidly and we all fear terrible consequences,” said Mogherini, demanding Savchenko be set free on humanitarian grounds.

Nikolai Polozov, Savchenko’s lawyer, told Reuters on Thursday his client had relaxed a hunger strike she embarked upon to protest against what she saw as the Russian court’s overly lengthy proceedings and had started to take liquids while still refusing food.

She stopped consuming liquids last Thursday. Polozov said she had changed her mind after a request to do so from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and her supporters.

Her plight has prompted angry Ukrainians to pelt the Russian embassy in Kiev with eggs and Russians to picket the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow to demand justice for the killed journalists.

Savchenko, who was captured by pro-Moscow rebels in June 2014 and handed over to Russia, will be sentenced on March 21-22. She faces up to 25 years in a Russian jail if found guilty.

She has raised the possibility she will starve herself to death unless a deal is quickly struck after the verdict to return her to Ukraine.

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe/Andrew Osborn

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