WorldUkraine FREES key MH17 suspect: 'Russian separatist' air defence commander is released ahead of 'large-scale' prisoner swap with Moscow, infuriating plane disaster investigators
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Ukraine has released a 'key suspect' in the MH17 plane disaster ahead of an expected prisoner swap with Russia.
Volodymyr Tsemakh, an alleged separatist commander in the area where the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down in 2014, was freed by a Kiev appeals court today pending further investigation.
Dutch prosecutors want to question Tsemakh and European politicians have urged that he not be allowed to travel to Russia.
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Some 400 troops died at Ilovaisk in 2014 when Ukrainian forces retreated through a "safe" corridor.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that talks on a prisoner exchange were in the final stages and Tsemakh's name has been widely mentioned in connection with the swap.
Tsemakh was captured by Ukrainian forces two months ago at his home in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
He was then secretly transferred to Kiev, whose security services believe he was in charge of an air defence unit near Snizhne in eastern Ukraine at the height of the crisis in 2014.
That is where MH17 was shot out of the sky on a journey from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing 298 people, most of them Dutch citizens.
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The Dutch-led investigators say the plane was shot down by a BUK anti-aircraft missile that originated from the Russian military's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade.
Russia has denied involvement.
The investigators said on Tuesday that they wanted Tsemakh to stay in Ukraine to be questioned.
'We would like to talk to Mr Tsemakh and ask him questions, so we'd rather have him available for the investigation in Ukraine,' said Brechtje van de Moosdijk, a spokeswoman for the investigation.
'He's now in Ukraine, in a Ukrainian prison cell and if he's being exchanged of course it's hard to say that we can still question him.'
However, Putin said a prisoner exchange could mark a step towards normalising relations between the two countries.
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'We're reaching the final stage of talks on the swap... it will be large-scale,' he told an economic forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok today.
Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Tsemakh is on the list of prisoners that Russia wants exchanged.
It is the first time Putin has spoken publicly about the prisoner swap which has been rumoured for week.
Fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine has killed 13,000 people in the past five years.
Last week Ukraine released Russian state media journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky, who had been in custody for more than a year, pending a trial for 'high treason'.
Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to hand Vyshynsky over to Moscow in exchange for Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who has been held in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic.
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Sentsov, 43, has become Ukraine's most famous political prisoner. He was arrested in 2014 and is serving a 20-year sentence for planning 'terrorist attacks' in Crimea.
He was one of a handful of prisoners who were recently taken from their Russian prison colonies to a temporary facility in Moscow.
Among other prisoners who could be eligible for an exchange are 24 Ukrainian sailors captured last year.
Russia has been holding the sailors since seizing their three vessels off Crimea last November, in the most dangerous direct clash between Russia and Ukraine in years.
Dutch MEP Kati Piri said demanding the exchange of Tsemakh is a 'strange request' which 'suggests that the Russian government wants to prevent this suspect from appearing in court'.
'His availability and testimony before the Joint Investigation Team is thus of the utmost importance for an effective prosecution by the countries involved,' a group of 40 MEPs said, calling him a 'key suspect'
Investigators announced in June that three Russians and one Ukrainian had been charged with murder.
The four suspects were named as Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko.
Ukraine, Russia exchange prisoners in move to improve ties
A plane carrying Russian prisoners freed by Ukraine has taken off for Moscow as part of a prisoner exchange by the two countries, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's security service said Saturday.
However, the trial will likely be held in absentia as neither Russia nor Ukraine extradites their nationals.
Ukrainian authorities said they would try to detain Kharchenko, who is believed to be on their territory.
Last year Vladimir Putin called MH17's downing a 'terrible tragedy' but said Moscow was not to blame and there were other explanations for what happened.
In pictures: Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
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