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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Freed Architect Gets a Hero's Welcome

ReutersVitaly Kaloyev, who lost his wife and children in a 2002 midair collision, arriving at Domodedovo Airport early Tuesday.
An architect convicted of killing an air traffic controller over a 2002 midair collision was given a hero's welcome by Nashi activists as he arrived in Moscow from a Swiss jail Tuesday.

But Vitaly Kaloyev, who lost his wife and children in the crash, said his main desire was to visit the family grave in North Ossetia.

"The most important thing for me is that I will be able to visit the graves of my children, my family," Kaloyev said in televised remarks.

The 51-year-old was convicted in October 2005 of premeditated homicide in the killing of Peter Nielsen, an air traffic controller with Swiss company Skyguide. Nielsen, a Dane, was the only person on duty when a Bashkirian Airlines Tu-154 and a DHL cargo jet collided on July 1, 2002, in airspace he was responsible for over southern Germany. The crash killed 71 people, mostly schoolchildren on a vacation trip to Spain.

Kaloyev was working as an architect in Spain, building a private house at the time, and his wife and two children were on their way to visit him.

He immediately went to the crash site and found his daughter's body almost intact.

"Switzerland is guilty of the death of my children," Kaloyev said on state television. "But I can't think badly of all the Swiss people. I have got many friends there ... people who supported me."

Kaloyev was set free Monday evening and immediately flew to Moscow, following a ruling by a Swiss court last week to cut his sentence from eight to five years and three months. He was ordered released right away because he has served more than two-thirds of his sentence with good behavior.

"I want to express my great thanks to all the citizens of Russia, to the Russian president, for the strong support they have extended to me," Kaloyev told dozens of journalists upon his arrival at Domodedovo Airport. "While in prison, I did not feel I was away from my motherland."

He was met by relatives who had traveled to Moscow from North Ossetia. Outside, hundreds of young people from the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group formed a chain along a highway leading to the city.

"Kaloyev is our man," they chanted in chorus, braving frosty wind and snow. "You are a real human being!" read the posters they held.

The sentence against Kaloyev, whose ordeal brought him widespread sympathy in Russia, was reduced after a Swiss court ruled that he had acted with diminished responsibility because of the deaths of his wife and two children. One of the judges told reporters that Kaloyev had not come to Switzerland intending to kill Nielsen but had lost control of himself when Nielsen refused to apologize after being shown pictures of Kaloyev's children.

Reuters, AP