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Ukrainian pilot charged in deaths of 2 Russian journalists goes to court in Russia's south


DONETSK, Russia — A preliminary hearing in the trial of a Ukrainian officer charged in the deaths of two Russian journalists started in Russia's south on Thursday.

Russian investigators allege that military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko was working as a spotter in eastern Ukraine and provided the coordinates for a mortar attack that killed the two Russian journalists in 2014. The deaths took place in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces.

Savchenko was captured by rebels and brought to Russia under murky circumstances, though Russian authorities say the Ukrainian crossed the border on her own and was lawfully detained on Russian soil.

Thursday's preliminary hearing is expected to set the trial date and consider a request of Savchenko's lawyers to hold the trial in Moscow, where the case would receive more publicity.

Nikolai Polozov, one of Savchenko's lawyers, told reporters outside the court that he has not had any contact with his client since she was taken from a pre-detention center in Moscow two weeks ago.

Savchenko, an officer who went to serve in the volunteer Aidar battalion when the war broke out in the east, became a poster child for Ukrainians fighting separatists. Top Ukrainian officials have been campaigning for her release.

Earlier this year, Savchenko spent 83 days on a hunger strike to protest her detention, but under pressure from her family and supporters she started drinking milk and eating cheese in March. Since her arrest, Savchenko has been elected as a deputy in Ukraine's Parliament and is a delegate to the Council of Europe, giving her diplomatic immunity. Russia, however, has rejected calls to release her.

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