DONETSK, Russia (AFP) - Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, on trial for the murder of two Russian journalists, said Tuesday she was captured by pro-Kremlin separatists and then smuggled into Russia by armed, masked men.
"I am a prisoner of war and a hostage who has been abducted," Savchenko told the court in a dramatic speech, saying separatist rebels captured her in eastern Ukraine and told her they would "sell" her to Russia.
Savchenko, a 34-year-old military helicopter navigator, testified for the first time at her high-profile trial in the small border town of Donetsk in southern Russia.
Russia accuses Savchenko of helping direct an artillery strike that killed two state television journalists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014, in a case that propelled her to stardom in Ukraine and caused outrage in the West.
Standing confidently in a glass-walled enclosure wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered blouse, Savchenko denied the charges of orchestrating the murder of the journalists.
Trained as a helicopter navigator, she said she "does not know how to" direct artillery fire, requiring complex maths.
The prosecution accuses her of overseeing the strike and then illegally crossing the border into Russia around 30 kilometres away.
Savchenko said she was taken prisoner by separatist rebels hours before the journalists were killed.
She was detained by pro-Russian separatists in an ambush and then held in custody for nearly a week. "Less than a week later, he said that they would sell me to Russia," she said.
Her captors then handed her over to men who spoke with a "Russian accent and did not understand Ukrainian," she said.
"They had masks on and had automatic rifles," she said, adding they appeared to be Russian special forces officers.
The men bundled her into a van and drove her for three and a half hours with a hood over her head before she found herself in Russia.
"I was taken across the border against my will," she said.
Savchenko has spent over a year in Russian pre-trial jail, protesting against her detention by going on hunger strike for more than 80 days.
Kiev on Tuesday in turn launched the trial of two Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine in May who say they are members of Russian military intelligence and face terrorism charges.
Though Kiev denies considering a swap, a high-profile prisoner exchange is widely seen as very probable after the trials run their course.
The United States has described Savchenko as a "hostage" of Russia's conflict with Ukraine and called for her to be released, along with several other Ukrainians held by Russia.