Kiev: Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited swap of 70 prisoners on Saturday, in a deal hailed by President Volodymyr Zelensky as a "first step" towards ending their conflict.
Planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev, where relatives waiting at the airport broke into applause.
"We have taken the first step," Zelensky said on the tarmac after greeting and hugging former prisoners at the airport. "We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war."
Among those swapped were 24 Ukrainian sailors, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Russian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky.
35prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev.
Ukraine's SBU security service confirmed that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with Russian-backed separatists considered a key witness in the downing of flight MH17, was also released as part of the swap.
Anticipation had been building for days for the exchange, which involved weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Relations between Kiev and Moscow nose-dived in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow backed separatists in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Fighting there has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past five years.
Zelensky's election in April has raised hopes that the stalled peace process could be revived.
The comedian-turned-politician vowed during to campaign to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the exchange would be "a huge step towards normalising relations" with Kiev.
Sailors, filmmaker, journalist
The release of Sentsov will be seen as a major victory for Kiev. The 43-year-old was Ukraine's most famous political prisoner and the subject of a star-studded international campaign calling for his release.
He was arrested in 2014 and had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony for planning "terrorist attacks" in Crimea.
"I thank all the people who have fought for us," Sentsov said at the airport in Kiev.
The sailors, including two members of Ukraine's SBU security services, were detained last year when Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea.
Among those handed over to Russia was Vyshynsky, a journalist at Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency who was facing charges of "high treason" but was released on bail late last month.
The release of Tsemakh, an alleged air defence specialist for pro-Russian separatists, prompted concern from the Netherlands as he is considered a person of interest in the MH17 case.
The Malaysia Airlines passenger plane travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
France has urged renewed efforts to resolve the conflict, calling for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany later this month.
Swap a 'sign of hope': German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the swap as a "sign of hope" and called for the implementation of a 2015 ceasefire deal that Paris and Berlin helped broker.
"This exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine is a sign of hope... it's worth continuing the hard work to implement the Minsk accord," Merkel said in a statement put out by her spokesman Steffen Seibert on Twitter.
Netherlands asked Ukraine not to hand over MH17 suspect to Russia
The Netherlands pressed Kiev hard to drop the handover to Russia of a key figure in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and regrets it was done, the government said Saturday.
The Dutch government contacted Ukraine "several times and at the very highest level" in an effort to prevent the handover of Vladimir Tsemakh, believed to be an air defence specialist for the pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a letter to parliament, adding that he "regretted" Kiev's decision.
MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made missile in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.
Here are the high-profile prisoners involved in the swap
Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov
Film director Oleg Sentsov is the most prominent of the Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia.
In 2015, he was sentenced to 20 years in a Russian Arctic penal colony on terror charges after a trial that Amnesty International likened to a Stalin-era show trial.
During court appearances, he remained unbroken, often smiling, singing the Ukrainian anthem and making defiant comments.
Sentsov, 43, opposed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, where he lived.
He was sent to a strict-regime penal colony on the remote Yamal peninsula where he spent 145 days without solid food last year, demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners.
His severe health problems and support from international film stars including Johnny Depp did not cause the Kremlin to budge.
Another Ukrainian, Alexander Kolchenko, who was convicted as Sentsov's co-defendant with a lower sentence, was also picked for release.
MH17 witness Vladimir Tsemakh
Vladimir Tsemakh, an alleged air defence specialist for pro-Russian separatists who Dutch investigators have described as a key witness in the downing of flight MH17, was also part of the exchange.
Ahead of the exchange, Dutch investigators questioned Tsemakh in Kiev this week, an informed source told AFP. Investigators consider him a "witness", not a "suspect", the source added.
Journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky
A journalist for Russia's state-funded RIA Novosti news agency, 52-year-old Kyrylo Vyshynsky was detained last year in Kiev and charged with "high treason" in the interests of Moscow. He has dual Ukrainian and Russian citizenship.
24 Ukrainian sailors
Russian coastguards captured 24 Ukrainian sailors off the coast of Crimea in November last year after seizing their three vessels.
The crew includes 22 sailors and two agents of Ukraine's SBU security service.
Moscow had wanted to put them on trial for violating Russia's maritime borders.
Ukraine's Klykh and Karpyuk
Stanislav Klykh, 45, is a history professor while Mykola Karpyuk, 55, is a senior member of two Ukrainian nationalist protest groups.
They were arrested in Moscow in 2014 and handed lengthy sentences for fighting against Russian armed forces in Chechnya in the 1990s. Both men said they confessed after being tortured.
Ukrainian blogger Gryb
Pavlo Gryb, a 21-year-old blogger, is the youngest Ukrainian prisoner. Kiev said he was kidnapped by Russian special forces in Belarus where he went to visit a friend.
Russia sentenced him to six years in prison after finding him guilty of inciting a friend to carry out a bombing.
Ukraine journalist Sushchenko
Roman Sushchenko, 50, was Paris correspondent for Ukraine's Ukrinform national news agency.
He was detained while on holiday in Moscow and last year sentenced to 12 years for espionage after he was accused of serving in Ukrainian military intelligence and gathering Russian state secrets.