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Russia and Ukraine conduct prisoner swap, raising hopes for eased tensions

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The first prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine since 2017 was taking place on Saturday.   -  
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VASILY MAXIMOV
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MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine were conducting a major prisoner exchange Saturday in a move that raised hopes for eased tensions between the two countries, who have been at war since 2014.

Planes from each country departed airports in each other's capitals early Saturday, according to flightradar data and Russian news agency Interfax.

Russian and Ukrainian media reported Friday that between 30 and 35 people from each side were expected to be exchanged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the exchange would be "a good step" toward the normalization of relations between Moscow and Kiev.

Ukraine had been hoping to secure the release of dozens of prisoners, including 24 sailors who were detained by Russia in the Kerch Strait last November.

The sailors were accused by Russia of violating its border and have been kept in custody for nearly 10 months. Ukraine has insisted that the men should be treated as prisoners of war.

The highly-anticipated swap comes amid calls by President Donald Trump to re-admit Russia to the G-7after it was kicked out of the group following the annexation of Crimea.

Five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region have killed 13,000 people despite a ceasefire signed in 2015.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made peace in eastern Ukraine one of his key election promises when he ran for office earlier this year.

It is unclear how many Russian captives Ukraine has been holding, though it was expected that those released would include two former members of Ukraine's armed forces who were convicted of treason and desertion.

A Ukrainian court reportedly released Vladimir Tsemakh, who is suspected of involvement in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine in 2014, on Thursday.

NBC News was not able to independently verify if Tsemakh had been released.

Dutch prosecutors previously urged Kiev not to allow Tsemakh to travel to Russia, fearing this could jeopardize the investigation into Flight MH17, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

In an earlier move that was widely regarded as a gesture of goodwill from the Ukrainian government, the former head of Russia's state-backed RIA Novosti news agency Kirill Vyshinsky, who has been detained in Ukraine on treason charges, was released on Aug. 28.

Tatyana Chistikova reported from Moscow, with Yuliya Talmazan and Linda Givetash from London.

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