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Two more Ukrainians freed from Russian prison in swap - Kiev

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, June 3, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

KIEV (Reuters) - Two Ukrainian citizens jailed in Russia have been freed and are returning home, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Tuesday, in what Kiev called a prisoner swap.

It followed the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko from Russian prison in May in a prisoner exchange that was cast as a humanitarian gesture by the Kremlin a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia over its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine.

“At last! Yuriy Soloshenko and Hennadiy Afanasyev are already on board a Ukrainian plane and are flying from Moscow to Ukraine,” Poroshenko said on Twitter.

Afanasyev was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine and sentenced to seven years in prison on terrorism charges.

Soloshenko was arrested in August 2014 while on a business trip to Russia and sentenced last October to six years in prison for espionage. Both Ukrainians denied the charges against them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially pardoned the two prisoners, according to a decree posted on the Kremlin website.

Soloshenko and Afanasyev’s release was secured through an exchange of prisoners, Ukrainian State Security Service official Yuriy Tandit told Channel 112. He gave no details.

There are still over 25 Ukrainians held in Russian jails who are seen by Kiev as political prisoners in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Reporting by Alexei Kalmykov and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich