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EU policy chief calls for Ukrainian pilot's release

March 10, 2016

The EU's Federica Mogherini has called on Moscow to free pilot Nadezhda Savchenko. The 34-year-old is on hunger strike while accused of complicity in the death of two Russian state TV reporters.

Nadezhda Savchenko Nadeschda Sawtschenko
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ria Novosti/Pivovarov

Mogherini released a statement Thursday calling for Russia to set Savchenko free, echoing similar calls from US officials.

"This is no longer just a judicial or political case: now it's a matter of human compassion," Mogherini said in a statement released by the EU's external office in Moscow. "Her health condition is deteriorating rapidly, and we all fear terrible consequences."

This comes as the Ukrainian pilot's lawyer says the woman is only taking liquids while she continues her week-long hunger strike in protest of her detention by Russian authorities.

"Nadezhda halted only a 'dry' hunger strike," lawyer Mark Feigin told the AFP news agency following reports that she had ended the hunger strike completely. "She will be fasting until the verdict is announced."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged Moscow to release Savchenko, who was elected in absentia to the Ukrainian parliament. He has proposed a prisoner exchange with Russia to secure Savchenko's release.

"We very much value your will and resilience in the fight, but there is no need for a hunger strike right now," Poroshenko said in a letter to Savchenko, provided by her defense team.

Violent protest in front of Russian embassy in Kyiv.
Ukrainian nationalists demanding the 34-year-old pilot's unconditional release have pelted the Russian embassy in Kyiv with eggs and other objects.Image: Reuters/G. Garanich

Fought with pro-Kyiv battalion, hailed as hero by Ukrainian nationalists

The Ukrainian military pilot was captured by pro-Russia separatists in June 2014 and handed over to Russia where she is currently on trial for her alleged role in the death of two TV reporters killed in mortar fire at a separatist checkpoint. She will be sentenced on March 21-22 and faces up to 25 years in a Russian prison.

But she has raised the possibility she will starve herself to death unless a deal is quickly struck after the verdict to return her to Ukraine.

Appearing feverish and visibly thinner after several days of fasting, she said she would continue refusing food if the court takes longer than a week to announce a verdict.

"Remember - we are playing with my life. And I will win," Savchenko said. "The stakes are high, and I have nothing to lose."

"Here's my final word," Savchenko added, climbing onto a bench inside the defendant's enclosure and raising her middle finger to the court.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any comments on the trial were "unacceptable." This comes as five EU member states have called for sanctions against Russian officials involved in Savchenko's case and extending existing sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian nationals for a further six months.

jar/msh (AFP, Reuters)