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Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap 'close' after Kiev releases MH17 suspect on bail

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Barbed wire and placards with images of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov are seen after a rally demanding the release of Sentsov
Barbed wire and placards with images of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov are seen after a rally demanding the release of Sentsov -
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President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that a major prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine was close, hours after a court in Kyiv released an MH17 suspect on bail.

Putin told an economic forum in Russia's Far East on Thursday that it had been difficult to decide which individuals should be exchanged, but that "on the grounds of humanity we are about to complete the talks that we have."

"We will finalise our talks on the exchange, and I think it will be rather large-scale, and also it will be a good step forward towards the normalisation (of relations)."

The comments come after a court in Kyiv freed Volodymyr Tsemakh on bail, a man suspected of involvement in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Dutch prosecutors investigating the downing of Flight MH17 have urged Kyiv not to allow Tsemakh to travel to Russia.

Ukraine is hoping to secure the release of dozens of prisoners, including 24 sailors who were detained by Russia in the Kerch Strait last year. It is unclear how many Russian captives Ukraine is holding.

Film-maker Sentsov transferred

Ukrainian prisoners, including sailors and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, are believed to be flying back to Ukraine after a swap was reportedly agreed with Moscow.

Russian agencies TASS and Interfax reported last week that Sentsov had been recently transferred from a remote Arctic prison to custody in the Russian capital.

A native of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula who opposed the region's annexation by Russia in 2014, Sentsov says his original conviction was politically-motivated. He was jailed in 2015 for planning terrorist attacks, a charge he denied.

It comes as Kyiv released Kirill Vyshinsky, the head of the Ukrainian branch of Russian state media Ria-Novosti on bail.

Vyshinsky, arrested on treason charges, has signed a document confirming his release as part of a prisoner swap, according to the prosecutor’s general office.

Moscow insisted the case against Vyshinsky is political and welcomed his release but didn’t comment on a possible prisoner exchange.

Later, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov only confirmed that “the contacts are being made” on the matter.

REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko
Kirill Vyshinsky, director of the Ukrainian office of the Russian state news agency RIA NovostiREUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko

Zelensky suggested exchanging Vyshinsky for Sentsov, who was convicted in 2015 for terrorism in a highly controversial case.

In 2018, during the football World Cup in Russia, Sentsov went on a hunger strike demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian prisoners in Russia widely considered as political.

European Union officials and human right groups and activists demanded their release on multiple occasions.

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
Crew members of Ukrainian naval ships, which were seized by Russia's FSB security service in November 2018, attend a court hearing in Moscow, Russia August 16, 2019.REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva