ADDS US SECRETARY OF STATE COMMENTS
MOSCOW/KIEV (AA) - Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko, who was kidnapped by separatist forces in June 2014, returned to Ukraine under a prisoner exchange deal with Russia Wednesday, local media reports said.
Russian authorities had accused Savchenko of being involved in the death of two Russian journalists who were killed by mortar fire in Ukraine.
She was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Savchenko was exchanged for Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeev, Russian military intelligence officers who were arrested for attacking Ukrainian military units in May 2015.
The Ukrainian pilot had gone on a hunger strike and demanded to be recognized as a prisoner of war during her time in prison. She ended her strike only at the request of President Petro Poroshenko.
According to the local daily KyivPost, Savchenko was irritable upon arrival at home in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. “Pull back! All of you, please, don’t touch me … I’m sorry, but I spent two years in a single cell, I lost the habit of being with people,” the daily quoted her as saying.
The daily also said that a Russian aircraft carrying Alexandrov and Yerofeev also left for Moscow.
Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the prisoner exchange, which was carried out in secrecy, with scarce details released to the public.
According to a statement posted on the official Kremlin website, Putin pardoned Savchenko before she was set free.
“Pardon sentenced person Nadezhda Savchenko, born May 11, 1981 in Kiev, and relieve her from further serving her sentence,” the Russian executive order said.
The EU and the U.S. had condemned her imprisonment in Russia as unlawful.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed her release, and Ukraine's "humanitarian decision" to release the two Russians "captured on Ukrainian soil and convicted of terrorism-related charges."
Savchenko's "release, after a long ordeal that included solitary confinement, is an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements and should now provide impetus for their complete implementation," Kerry said in a statement.
In October 2014, Savchenko was put on the ballot of Ukraine's Fatherland party and elected as a member of the Ukrainian parliament in absentia.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted in April 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Thousands of victims have been killed in the conflict since.