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Ukraine Pilot, Jailed by Russia, Returns Home


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, looks at newly-released Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko during their meting in the Presidential Office in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 25, 2016.

A Ukrainian army helicopter pilot who spent nearly two years in a Russian prison flew home to a hero's welcome after being freed in a swap with Moscow.

Nadiya Savchenko returned Wednesday to Kyiv, where President Petro Poroshenko decorated her with the Hero of Ukraine award, the country's highest honor, during a ceremony. Earlier in the day, two alleged Russian soldiers, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, returned to Moscow as part of the exchange.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said the widows of two Russian journalists killed in eastern Ukraine had asked him to pardon the Ukrainian pilot. Putin said in televised remarks that he hoped her release "will help reduce tension in the Ukraine conflict and avoid new loss of life."

A Russian court sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison after she was convicted of killing the journalists during a shelling campaign in eastern Ukraine as Russian-backed rebels fought with the Ukrainian government.

The 35-year-old Savchenko denied the charges and launched several hunger strikes to protest her detention.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, hailed the pilot's release, saying she was celebrating with Ukraine.

"Nadiya Savchenko is free and back in Ukraine, Mogherini said on Twitter. "Long awaited good news, that the EU celebrates together with her country."

The Reuters news agency reports that the two Russians released were special forces soldiers captured while on a secret mission in eastern Ukraine. As part of the deal, they were pardoned by Ukraine's president.