MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko arrived home to scenes of jubilation on Wednesday after her release by Russia in a prisoner swap and she promptly offered to fight again for Kiev in its conflict with pro-Russian separatists.
Savchenko’s handover, in return for two Russian prisoners - had been demanded by the West and was cast as a humanitarian gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia imposed over its support of the rebels.
Savchenko, 35, barefoot - it was unclear why - and wearing a T-shirt depicting the Ukrainian coat of arms, emerged from the terminal at Kiev’s Boryspil airport to cries of “hero” from a crowd of supporters, among them her sister and mother.
“Huge thanks for fighting for me. I thank everyone who wished me well. Thanks to you I survived. To those who wished me ill, I survived despite you!” she shouted.
“I can’t revive the dead, but I am always ready to lay down my life on the battlefield for Ukraine. And I will do everything possible for every person in captivity to be freed.”
She was captured in 2014 while fighting with Ukrainian forces against pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. She was handed over to Russia and found guilty of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists who were killed by artillery fire while reporting on the conflict.
As Savchenko touched down in Kiev, Russian television showed footage of Putin meeting relatives of the two Russian journalists to explain his decision to pardon her.
“I want to... express the hope that such decisions, which are dictated first of all by humanitarian considerations, will lead to a reduction in the confrontation in the conflict zone and will help avoid such losses, which are terrible and which nobody needs,” Putin said.
State television also showed the two Russians handed over by Kiev, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, descending the steps of an aircraft after it touched down at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.
The pair - who told Reuters in an interview last year that they were Russian special forces soldiers captured while on a secret mission in eastern Ukraine - were embraced on the tarmac by their wives.
As part of the exchange deal, which could help ease tensions between Russia and the West, they received official pardons from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Savchenko, a military pilot, had volunteered to fight with a ground unit against the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At her trial in southern Russia, Savchenko was accused of acting as an artillery spotter, calling down the fire that killed the journalists. She denied this.
A Russian court sentenced her in March to 22 years in jail. She is widely seen in Ukraine as a symbol of resistance against Russia, a perception bolstered by her defiant behavior in court during her trial.
At one point, she interrupted the judge reading out his verdict by standing on a bench and singing the Ukrainian anthem at the top of her voice.
Russia has never explicitly acknowledged that it sent active duty Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine, so it was not clear how Alexandrov and Yerofeyev would be treated on their return home. While in Kiev, they had accused Moscow of disowning them.
Alexandrov’s mother, Zinaida, told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday: “I’m glad, I’m very happy. I hope that everything will be okay for him, I really want to see him.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement that he hoped Savchenko’s release “will help build trust between Ukraine and Russia”.
Russia’s relations with its neighbor and fellow ex-Soviet republic Ukraine have been toxic since an uprising in 2014 forced out the Moscow-backed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich and installed a pro-Western administration.
Russia then annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. Moscow said it was protecting the local Russian-speaking population from persecution by the new authorities in Kiev. Western governments called it an illegal land-grab and imposed sanctions on Moscow.
Soon after, pro-Moscow separatists began an armed separatist rebellion in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, an area with a large Russian-speaking community. Fighting between the rebels and Ukraine’s forces killed thousands of people.
A fragile ceasefire has been in place since last year, but a permanent settlement to the conflict remains elusive.
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow and Alexei Kalmykov in Kiev; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich