Downed jet witness released as prisoner swap rumours grow
A Ukrainian court has unexpectedly released a key witness in the case of the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, just minutes before Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was optimistic about an impending prisoner swap with Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine, which remain deadlocked over Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and the separatist-controlled east, have been discussing a major prisoner exchange that could release dozens of Russians and Ukrainians kept in custody in the two countries.
The appeals court in the capital Kiev ordered the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh from custody on recognisance, pending further investigation.
Tsemakh, who was the commander of the separatists' air defence in the area where the MH17 flight was shot down five years ago, was abducted by Ukrainian security services earlier this year and taken across the frontline to Kiev.
Shortly after Tsemakh was released yesterday, Mr Putin spoke about the impending prisoner exchange at a conference in Russia, saying that the negotiations were at their final stages.
"I think (the swap) will be fairly big," he said in televised remarks, adding that it would be a "good step" to improve Russia's ties with Ukraine.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested Tsemakh is on the list of prisoners that Russia wants exchanged in return for freeing several Ukrainians jailed in Russia, including 24 sailors captured off Crimea in November.
Among others who could be going home is a Russian journalist who was released by a Kiev court on parole last week and Ukrainian prisoners including film director Oleg Sentsov, who have recently been taken from their Russian prison colonies to a temporary facility in Moscow.
Responding to the reports that Tsemakh might be sent to Russia, Dutch prosecutors investigating the MH17 downing said earlier this week they would like to question him.
Dozens of Ukrainian politicians signed a petition to president Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier this week, urging him against handing over Tsemakh to Russia.
All 298 people on board the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed on July 17, 2014, when a missile shattered the Boeing 777 in mid-air over a rebel-controlled area.
Overwhelming evidence has pointed to Russia supplying both funds and weapons to the rebels.
In June four people, including a prominent separatist commander, were charged in the Netherlands with murder over the plane's downing.