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article imageCrimean Tatars freed by Russia arrive as heroes in Ukraine

By Dmitry ZAKS (AFP)     Oct 27, 2017 in World

Two Crimean Tatar leaders sentenced for their political activities by Russian authorities in the annexed peninsula arrived Friday to a rapturous welcome in Ukraine after being released thanks to an apparent deal brokered by Turkey.

Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko just hours after their flight from Ankara -- the Kiev ally to which they had flown from Crimea upon their release this week.

"Today is a real day for celebration," a grinning Poroshenko told reporters while receiving the two activists in his office.

"The moment we were all waiting for with very cautious optimism has finally turned into a fantastic reality."

Umerov and Chiygoz are two of the Crimean Tatars' most high profile community leaders and have irked Moscow by vocally opposing the Black Sea region's armed seizure from Ukraine in March 2014.

The Crimean Tatars are a long-suffering Turkic-speaking Muslim people who were deported under Stalin and only returned to their homeland in the 1990s. They also comprise a small minority in Turkey.

Umerov and Chiygoz both vowed to return to Crimea in the future after being given a heroes' welcome with a children's choir that performed the Ukrainian anthem at the Kiev airport.

"I am definitely going home to Crimea, no matter what awaits me there," Umerov told reporters upon his arrival.

"No one gave me any terms or conditions upon my release," he said.

Chiygoz added that he did not see himself as a free man because the Crimean Tatars still remained under Russian rule.

"This is not freedom," the 60-year-old said in a near whisper.

"We will not be free until every person (jailed in Crimea) is released."

- Erdogan's mediation -

Chiygoz was sentenced in September to eight years in prison over deadly clashes at a rally.

Umerov received two years in a penal colony on charges of separatism but was allowed to remain at home pending an appeal. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and diabetes as well as other conditions.

Neither man explained what exactly prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign off on their handover to the Turkish authorities.

Mustafa Dzhemilev -- the respected spiritual leader of the Crimean Tatar community -- has told AFP he had asked Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for the activists' release in talks with Putin.

He added on Friday that Erdogan "still supports some sorts of contacts with Putin" and was thus able to negotiate on behalf of the two men.

Umerov and Chiygoz both also thanked Poroshenko for playing an instrumental role in their release. Erdogan met the Ukrainian leader in Kiev earlier this month.

Erdogan has tried to preserve good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and has slowly begun to assume the role of mediator between the two countries.

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