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Ukraine sentences captured Russian servicemen to 14 years

KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian court on Monday sentenced two Russian soldiers captured last May to 14 years in prison for their involvement in the pro-Russian separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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Russia denies sending troops to help the rebels and says Alexander Alexandrov and his commander, Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev, had quit their special forces unit to take part in the fighting on their own initiative.

Ahead of the court session, Yerofeyev’s lawyer said the verdict was a foregone conclusion because of Ukraine’s wish to exchange the servicemen for Ukrainians detained in Russia, including pilot Nadezhda Savchenko.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko later said he had talked with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about the Russian soldiers and Savchenko.

“Ukraine calls on Russia to free Nadezhda Savchenko immediately,” Poroshenko was quoted as saying in a statement.

The soldiers, who have found themselves pawns in the most tense confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War, were found guilty of preparing an “act of terror” and illegally crossing into occupied Ukrainian territory, among other charges.

Their lawyers said they had not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict.

Their conviction follows the sentencing of Savchenko to 22 years in a Russian prison in March, a verdict the United States called a “blatant disregard for the principles of justice”.

Savchenko, 34, found guilty of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict, has become a symbol of the deep division between the one-time allies following Ukraine’s pivot towards Europe.

She is a national hero in Ukraine, but many in Russia see her as a Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.

Putin and Poroshenko agreed that Ukraine’s Consul General in Rostov-on-Don would be granted access to Savchenko soon, the Kremlin said.

Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Alexei Kalmykov; Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Angus MacSwan and John Stonestreet