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Ukrainian Pilot Nadia Savchenko Reportedly Ends Three Month Hunger Strike

Days after Russian officials said the jailed aviator was on the verge of death, the 33-year-old has reportedly agreed to eat some chicken broth.

by Liz Fields
Mar 5 2015, 4:55pm

Photo by Ivan Sekretarev/AP

Russian officials claim that Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadia Savchenko has agreed to end a grueling 82 days on hunger strike that had reportedly left the 33-year-old on the verge of death.

"Today, Savchenko agreed to follow doctors' recommendations on her health and agreed to eat chicken broth," the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service's press office told Interfax news agency Thursday.

Savchenko, one of the first women in Ukraine to be trained as an air force navigator, has been on hunger strike since December 13, surviving solely on water and glucose drips, the latter of which she had also reportedly refused since mid-February. On Friday, the Kremlin said the fashion designer turned pilot would "die within days" if she did not eat, although prison officials denied the report.

"Over the past days her health sharply deteriorated. She's now experiencing serious problems with her internal organs," the Kremlin's human rights council wrote in an open letter last Friday.

Russia has held Savchenko, who is also a Ukrainian politician, at Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina detention center since July on charges relating to her alleged involvement in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine that killed two Russian journalists.

Savchenko, who denies the charges, maintains she was kidnapped illegally by pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine's Donbass region in June 2014 and transferred to Russia a month later.

Related: Days From Death: Jailed Ukrainian Pilot Nadia Savchenko Is Still on Hunger Strike, Says Kremlin

In January, prosecutors added illegal border crossing to the list of charges filed against the pilot—the same month she was transferred to the prison's hospital ward because of her "abrupt weight loss," medical personnel told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A Moscow court ruled Savchenko would be held in pre-trial detention until May 13.

This week, a Russian court rejected an appeal for her release. Savchenko appeared at that hearing pale and gaunt, but spirited, as she listened to the verdict from a cage in the courtroom.

The news of the ended hunger strike comes a day after the pilot told BBC News she felt "okay."

"Sometimes my head spins and I feel sick. But I'm okay... If I still feel something, it means I'm alive," she said, but added, "This will get me in the end. Sooner or later. Of course it will.

"Forty kilograms means death, and now I weigh 55. I've got 15 to go," she said. "But it won't finish me off soon. So don't worry. I will last a bit longer."

The high-profile case has been closely watched both in Ukraine and internationally. Some human rights monitors and Savchenko's defense team have declared her a prisoner of war and called for her release on humanitarian grounds.

Last month, 14 European Union ministers urged Russia to release the "illegally abducted Ukrainian pilot," while the US State Department proclaimed Savchenko a "hostage to Russian authorities" and said her life "hangs in the balance."

In Ukraine, the aviator—whose name means "hope"—has become a symbol of defiance against Moscow's mounting offensive in the country, where a fierce battle between Kiev's military and pro-Russia separatists has, according to the UN, killed nearly 5,800 people since April and forced thousands more to flee their homes in the east.

Related: In Photos: A Year of Conflict in Ukraine

In October, while she was in Russian detention, Savchenko was voted, in absentia, to Ukraine's parliament as a member of the Batkivshchyna party. In November, while in captivity, she resigned from the military, and has been appointed to Ukraine's delegation to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg. But even her new parliamentary status has not granted her immunity from imprisonment.

This month, parties in the Ukraine conflict signed a renewed ceasefire agreement, which began on February 12, despite ongoing fighting and shelling in the country's east. Both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists began the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line Friday as part of the agreement.

The exchange of prisoners has also been negotiated as part of the deal, but Russia has said Savchenko's release has not been considered or negotiated as part of the terms of the truce.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields