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24 Sept 2022

Five Britons captured in Ukraine by pro-Russian forces ‘back in UK’

Five Britons captured in Ukraine by pro-Russian forces ‘back in UK’

Five Britons captured in Ukraine by pro-Russian forces have returned to the UK, a non-profit organisation supporting one of the families has said.

It is understood John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were set free alongside Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on Wednesday, and landed in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Prime Minister Liz Truss said on Wednesday that the release of five Britons had been secured by working with Ukrainian authorities and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, but the identities of the men were not initially confirmed.

Non-profit organisation the Presidium Network, which has been supporting the family of Mr Healy, told the PA news agency that all five had landed “safely” in the UK and had been reunited with their families.

Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the organisation, said: “We don’t know exactly if they’ve all returned back to their homes yet, but we do know they’re with families at the moment.”

The Foreign Office has not commented on the whereabouts of the men.

Mr Aslin’s release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick, while multiple reports also indicated that Shaun Pinner would also be returning home.

A video emerged late on Wednesday of two men sitting inside an airliner, in which Mr Aslin introduced himself and Mr Pinner, adding: “We just want to let everyone know that we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families.”

Mr Pinner interjected: “By the skin of our teeth,” as Mr Aslin continued: “We just want everyone to know the good news etc, so thanks to everyone that’s been supporting us and whatnot, so it’s really muchly appreciated.”

Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everybody.”

A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic had sentenced Mr Aslin to death alongside fellow British detainee Mr Pinner in July.

Ms Truss, who is visiting New York for a UN summit where world leaders are discussing the ongoing war in Ukraine, tweeted: “Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”

She thanked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “for his efforts to secure the release of detainees, and Saudi Arabia for their assistance”.

“Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends,” Ms Truss added.

Mr Harding, along with Mr Hill and Mr Healy, went on trial last month in the city of Donetsk, Russian media reported.

The three, along with Swede Matthias Gustafsson and Croat Vjekoslav Prebeg, all pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenarism and “undergoing training to seize power by force”, according to Russian media.

The next court hearing in their case was scheduled for October, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a statement by the separatists’ court.

Reports suggested the 10 prisoners included citizens of Sweden, Croatia and Morocco, as well as two US military veterans, Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27.

Mr Jenrick said he was “deeply grateful” to the Ukrainian government, as well as the Saudi Crown Prince and the Foreign Office, for securing the release.

He added: “Aiden’s return brings to an end months of agonising uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark who suffered every day of Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope.

“As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the release “brings to an end many months of uncertainty and suffering, including the threat of the death penalty, for them and their families, at the hands of Russia”.

“Tragically that was not the case for one of those detained and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey.”

The British aid volunteer died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

“I would like to express my gratitude to President Zelensky and his team for their efforts to secure their release, and to HRH Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman and his team, for their assistance,” the Foreign Secretary said in a statement.

“I continue to call on Russia to comply with international humanitarian law and not exploit prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political purposes.”

Mr Byrne said he was “completely relieved and so pleased” that the five had returned to Britain, but added that he was “still thinking” of Paul Urey’s family.

Allan Hogarth, from Amnesty International UK, called it a “huge relief” after a “sham judicial process apparently designed to exert diplomatic pressure on the UK”.

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