April 19, 2016 / 12:47 PM / 2 years ago

Ukraine's Poroshenko hints at deal with Russia to swap pilot Savchenko

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Tuesday he and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had agreed a framework for a deal to secure the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko from a 22-year jail sentence in Russia.

Former Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a glass-walled cage during a verdict hearing at a court in the southern border town of Donetsk in Rostov region, Russia, in this still image taken from video March 22, 2016. REUTERS/REUTERS TV

The sentencing of two captured Russian servicemen in Ukraine on Monday fueled speculation that they might be swapped for Savchenko, 34, who was found guilty of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists in 2014 during Ukraine’s separatist conflict. She has denied any involvement.

“Yesterday I initiated a conversation with Putin and based on preliminary preparations it seems to me we have managed to agree on a certain algorithm to free Nadezhda,” Poroshenko told journalists.

The sentencing of the Russian soldiers “opens certain possibilities of initiating a swap. But I strongly urge no speculation about a timeframe for (her) return or future steps.”

In her homeland, Savchenko is a regarded as a national hero and symbol of resistance to Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 after a Moscow-backed president was toppled during street protests in Kiev. Russia has also backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But many in Russia see her as a Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.

She was captured by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 at the height of fighting there between the Kiev government’s forces and Russian-backed separatists.

At her trial in Donetsk in Russia earlier this year she was accused of directing artillery fire that killed two Russian television journalists.

Poroshenko said he had spoken to Savchenko by telephone and that she had agreed to end a hunger strike she has been observing on-and-off since late last year.

Speculation that a deal might be afoot increased with the sentencing of two Russian soldiers, Alexander Alexandrov and his commander, Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev, to 14 years in jail. The pair were captured almost a year ago in eastern Ukraine and subsequently charged with preparing “an act of terror”.

Russia denies sending members of its military to help the rebels and says Alexandrov and Yerofeyev had quit their special forces unit to take part in Ukraine’s conflict on their own initiative.

Last week Putin said he was in touch with Ukraine’s leaders regarding the Savchenko case, but that “it’s better not to get ahead of ourselves.”

On Monday Poroshenko said Putin had agreed to grant Ukraine’s Consul General in Rostov-on-Don access to Savchenko. One of her lawyers said the diplomat had visited the prisoner on Tuesday.

Reporting by Natalia Zinets and; Alexei Kalmykov; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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