The Netherlands “deeply regrets” that Volodymyr Tsemakh, a suspect in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, was released as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, the Dutch government said on Saturday.
Seventy people were exchanged between Russia and Ukraine on Saturday, 35 from each country.
Among the Ukrainians released were 24 sailors captured in the Kerch Strait last November, and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested on terrorism charges — which he denies — in 2015.
Kirill Vyshinsky, the former director of the Ukrainian branch of a Russian state news agency and Tsemakh, were among those returned to Russia.
‘Russia obliged to cooperate’
The Dutch government said in a letter seen by Euronews that it was first informed that Tsemakh might be part of a prisoner exchange in mid-August and that “several rounds of consultations” via diplomatic and political channels ensued to ensure he would not be released so that he would remain at the disposal of the criminal investigation into the downing of flight MH17.
The Ukrainian authorities delayed the exchange and allowed the Dutch Public Prosecution Service to interview Tsemakh but ultimately released him.
“The government deeply regrets Mr Tsemakhm’s inclusion, under pressure from the Russian Federation, in this prisoner exchange, as a result of which he is currently in Russia,” the Dutch government said.
“The government reminds once again that Russia is also obliged to cooperate on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 2166,” it added.
Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH17 left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur on July 14, 2014 but was shot down over eastern Ukraine resulting in the death of 298 people, most of them Dutch.
A trial is scheduled to start on March 9, 2020.
But other leaders welcomed the prisoners’ exchange, in particular, the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a statement that he and his Russian counterpart “have agreed on the first stage of unblocking our dialogue and the first stage of ending the war.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the swap is “a positive signal to be followed by other important steps to overcome the current deadlock in Russia-Ukraine relations and in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the swap is a “hopeful sign.”
“I am happy for the Ukrainian sailors and Oleg Sentsov who are finally able to return home. It’s worth continuing to work hard to implement the Minsk agreements. The federal government is ready for it,” she added.
The office of French President Emmanuel Macron described the swap as “a decisive step in the resumption of a constructive dialogue that must be continued in the coming weeks.”
“France, with Germany, will intensify its efforts under the Normandy format for further progress to be made and for the implementation of the political component of the Minsk Agreement,” it added.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said further talks will prioritise “the consolidation of the ceasefire, the disengagement and withdrawal of heavy weapons, mine clearance and the implementation of emergency humanitarian measures for the benefit of the people of Donbas,” he added.
US President Donald Trump called Saturday’s exchange “a first giant step to peace.”
European Council President Donald Tusk said Sentsov’s release and that of the 24 Ukrainian sailors “fills me with relief.”
European Parliament President David Sassoli said he welcomed the news of Sentsov’s release “with relief and profound joy,” adding: “I look forward to being able to hand him Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in person soon.”