Families' relief as British POWs released by separatists in Ukraine

EXCLUSIVE: Emotional moment British fighter is finally reunited with his family in the UK after he and four other POWs were released by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine

  • Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner yesterday released a video confirming they were now ‘out of the danger zone’
  • John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill said to be three other Brits released by Russian-backed forces
  • Tired and smiling, ex-British Army soldier Mr Pinner was finally reunited with his family back in the UK today
  • Meanwhile, Mr Aslin’s mother has said she is ‘overjoyed’ and ‘hugely relieved’ after son escaped death penalty
  • Two Americans, a Swede, a Croat and a Moroccan were also released after Saudi Arabia offered to mediate 

This is the emotional moment a British fighter was finally reunited with his family in the UK after he and four other prisoners of war were released by Russian-back separatists in Ukraine following months in detention. 

Shaun Pinner, who had been sentenced to the death penalty before a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic alongside Aiden Aslin in June, yesterday released a video confirming they were ‘out of the danger zone’ as the pair were flown to Saudi Arabia.

John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were the three other British nationals released by Russian-backed forces.

Their release came after an agreement was brokered by the Saudi Crown Prince to release a total of 10 POWs who had been captured during the fighting. 

Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner surrendered to Russian soldiers in the besieged port city of Mariupol before spending five months in prison in Donetsk.

Tired and smiling, ex-British Army soldier Mr Pinner was finally reunited with his family back in the UK today. He was met by relatives, including mother Debbie Price, step father Lyndon, son Evan Pinner and sister Cassandra at a hotel near an undisclosed airport this morning.

Ms Pinner told MailOnline: ‘We are just relieved that he is home safe and sound, there are no words to express how thankful we are.

‘He is in good spirits, he is still his funny self, even at this difficult time. Health wise, he is surprisingly very well too.’

Meanwhile, Mr Aslin’s mother has said she is ‘overjoyed’ and ‘hugely relieved’ after her son escaped a death sentence.

Tired and smiling, ex-British Army soldier Mr Pinner (second from right) was finally reunited with his family back in the UK today following months of detention in Ukraine

From left: John Harding, Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin pose for a selfie as they sit on a flight out of Russia to Saudi Arabia yesterday evening

Aiden Aslin (left) and Shaun Pinner (right) and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (centre) pictured during a sentencing hearing in the so-called Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic

Britons Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy alongside Croatian Vjekoslav Prebeg during a court hearing in the Russian-held region of Donetsk last month

Ang Wood revealed she is ‘still in a state of complete shock’ and her focus was now on getting her son home safely.

She added: ‘There’s not really much I can say right now, I’m just spending some time with my family as I’m still in a state of shock.

‘The last 24 hours have been an absolute whirlwind and I’m just trying to get my head around everything. I’m obviously overjoyed and hugely relieved but my focus is on getting him home safely now.

‘We haven’t any indication when that will. I haven’t been able to speak to him so far, we’ll believe it once he is home but obviously its promising news.

‘I’m just still in complete shock I think. It’s quite emotional. I didn’t know if this day would ever come. I’m still trying to process the news myself.’

It comes after Newark MP Robert Jenrick said in a statement last night: ‘I am delighted that my constituent, Aiden Aslin, and the other British prisoners of war held captive by the Russian authorities have finally been released and are on their way back to the UK.

‘I am deeply grateful for the work undertaken by the Ukrainian government, the Saudi Crown Prince, Liz Truss, James Cleverly and the dedicated civil servants working in the FCDO Detainees team to bring their horrific ordeal to a close.

‘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.’

Mr Healy, meanwhile, was also among the prisoners of war surprisingly released yesterday. He had been providing humanitarian assistance in Ukraine when he was captured.

The 22-year-old is now back home ‘safe and well’, with a source close to the family saying he wants time out for the next few days to process the traumatic event.

Dominik Byrne, founder of humanitarian charity Presidium Network which was brought in to investigate Dylan’s disappearance, said he was delighted he had been released. 

Mr Healy was detained in April alongside Paul Urey, 45, from Warrington, who later died in detention amid concerns he had been tortured by Russian separatists.

The pair were captured by Russian forces while trying to cross a checkpoint into Russian territory. They  were helping with the ‘high risk evacuation’ of women and children from Zaporizhzhia in south-eastern Ukraine when they were captured.

But officials in the Moscow-backed DPR claimed they were charged with carrying out ‘mercenary activities’ in April, according to Russian state media Tass. 

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly welcomed the release of the British nationals, but added: ‘Tragically that was not the case for one of those detained and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey.’

Shaun Pinner (left) and Aiden Aslin (right), who had been serving in the Ukrainian marines, were captured by Putin’s troops in the city of Mariupol in April. The pair have both now been released

Aslin, pictured here during his time in captivity in Donetsk, thanked people for their support after being released yesterday

The list of prisoners released includes five British nationals, two Americans, one Swede, one Croat and one Moroccan. Pinner is pictured in the orange shirt with Aslin on his left after landing in Riyadh

Pinner (right) and Aslin (left) were sentenced to death, along with Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (centre) in June this year by a pro-Russian separatist court

Cassandra Pinner has spoken of her family’s delight that her brother Shaun has been released

In a statement, Saudi Arabia said Moroccan, US, Swedish and Croatian nationals had also been freed as ‘part of an exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine’.

Saudi Arabia said the detainees had been transferred from Russia and it was organising their return to the respective countries.

The sudden announcement by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the prisoners’ release came as a surprise to many, including their families.

It is believed to have been a personal initiative of the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman. Until now, the Saudis have kept a low profile over the Ukraine conflict.

Ms Truss also thanked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky ‘for his efforts to secure the release of detainees, and Saudi Arabia for their assistance’.

The PM added: ‘Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends.’ 

In a video which was posted on Instagram, Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner smiled at the camera as they sat in their seats on the plane to Riyadh last night.

Aslin said: ‘We just want everyone to know that we are now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families.

Pinner, who was sat next to him, chipped in: ‘By the skin of our teeth’.

Aslin added: ‘Not just us, there was in total 10 foreigners that were in captivity. We’re going to be pretty quiet… until we get things sorted out, but we just want everyone to know the good news. 

‘Thanks to everyone that’s been supporting us, its really appreciated. 

Pinner agreed, saying: ‘Thanks to everyone, I can’t say thank you enough.’

Aslin and Pinner were captured in June and kept in detention, before a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) handed them both a death sentence.

Two US military veterans — Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27 — were also both freed thanks to the prisoner exchange. 

The list of newly released prisoners includes five British nationals, two Americans, one Swede, one Croat and one Moroccan, an official stated, who added that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman headed the negotiations. 

The plane carrying the prisoners left Russia earlier today and landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh this afternoon.

They will soon be returned to their home countries, the Saudi Press Agency reported, citing sources familiar with the mediation.

UK Prime Minister Liz Truss said: ‘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.’ 

The prisoner exchange came at a puzzling time, landing on the same day Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilisation of reservists in a dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine. 

Putin also threatened the West with nuclear weapons over Ukraine, after he announced plans to annex occupied parts of its territory to the Russian mainland.

Aslin (pictured) seemed in good spirits as he was checked over by medics after his release from detention earlier today

Oleksandr Kravtsov, head of Vedmedi division, sees his wife Maryna as he disembarks a plane after being freed from Russian captivity

POWs held in Russia, some of which were sentenced to death after fighting in eastern Ukraine, have been released following mediation by Saudi Arabia

The two Americans were freed thanks to a prisoner exchange brokered by Saudi leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured, right, with Joe Biden in Jeddah in July)

The prisoners were captured on the frontlines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Truss 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.

A former care worker, Mr Aslin moved to Ukraine after falling for his now-wife Diane, who is originally from the city of Mykolaiv. He and his brother were captured after fighting in the city of Mariupol in April.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: ‘I welcome the safe return of Ukrainian prisoners of war and one civilian, including five British nationals. Prisoners of war from other countries held by Russia-backed proxies have also been returned.

‘This 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, he said, recalling the family of Paul Urey — who died while in captivity.

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba announced in July that Russians had returned Mr Urey’s body to the nation after he died in detention having suffered ‘illnesses’ and ‘stress.

But the corpse revealed signs of torture and was missing body parts, Ukrainian officials said. He had been in held captivity by separatists in the Donetsk region.

‘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,’ Cleverly added.

‘I continue to call on Russia to comply with International Humanitarian Law and not exploit prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political purposes.’

Drueke and Huynh were believed to be the first US citizens confirmed captured by Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine when they were reported missing in mid-June.

At the time, Huynh’s fiance, Joy Black, told Reuters the men had been motivated to support Kyiv in its fight against Russia after watching television footage from Ukraine in the first weeks after Russia invaded.

Drueke, 39, left, and Andy Huynh, 27, appeared terrified in footage released by Russian forces where they identified themselves and denounced war. They men went missing in June after their platoon in Ukraine was ambushed by Russian soldiers 

Large numbers of foreigners have travelled to Ukraine to fight since Russia’s February 24 invasion. Some of them have been caught by Russian forces, along with other foreigners in the country who say they were not fighters.

It could not be immediately established if the released group included Britons Shaun Pinner and Morocco-born Brahim Saadoun who were also captured and sentenced to death in Donetsk.

A Swedish citizen, captured at the port city of Mariupol and facing a possible death sentence under the laws of the DPR, was among those released, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde confirmed.

‘I can confirm that the Swede who in May was taken into custody by Russian forces is free and on his way to Sweden,’ Linde told Swedish news agency TT on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

MbS reportedly made the initial offer to mediate during a telephone call with Putin back in March, during the early stage of the war.

It is not yet clear how many prisoners were returned to Russia, or why Saudi Arabia intervened on the day Putin decided to declare partial mobilisation.

Alexander Drueke, left, and Andy Huynh, right, have both been freed after they were captured by Russia while fighting in Ukraine. The US military veterans’ freedom was arranged in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia 

‘The release comes based on the priority given by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and in continuation of his commitment to the humanitarian initiatives towards the Russian-Ukrainian crisis,’ a statement from the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs read.

‘This also results from his continued engagement with the relevant countries.’

In the conversation back in March, MbS also reaffirmed Saudi intention to maintain the balance and stability of the oil market and abide by agreements from OPEC — an intergovernmental body that regulates global oil prices.

OPEC+ announced it would boost production by 100,000 barrels a day in August, barely making a dent in meeting global demand — after observers claimed the Biden administration was asking Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and reduce global energy prices.

The move came weeks after Biden visited Saudi Arabia, giving a boost to the ruling family and the Crown Prince.

Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab countries are the world’s biggest oil exporters, along with Russia, which together make up OPEC+.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured) was involved in negotiations to release 10 foreign nationals captured in Ukraine from Russian prison, a Saudi official claimed

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Governor of the Novgorod region

Arab countries nevertheless supported the UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia withdraw troops from Ukraine.

Both Russia and Saudi Arabia have an interest in keeping world oil production stable despite soaring prices due to the invasion of Ukraine — forcing the two countries to collaborate and putting the crown price in a position to negotiate with Putin on other matters.

Both Ukrainian and Russian forces have captured hundreds of enemy fighters since the start of the conflict, with a handful of prisoner exchanges having taken place.

The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia was not allowing access to prisoners of war, adding the UN had evidence that some had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could amount to war crimes.

Russia denies torture or other forms of maltreatment of POWs.

After Putin announced mobilisation, all plane tickets to countries where Russians would not need a visa, including Turkey, Armenia and Georgia, have now sold out, while flagship airline Aeroflot is not displaying any available flights.

More than 100 demonstrators holding ‘no to mobilisation’ signs and chanting anti-war slogans have been dragged away by armed police trying to stamp out the unrest across the country, while others desperately try to flee the country by snapping up one-way tickets from Moscow. 

Four police officers wearing black visors, vests and carrying batons detain a person in Moscow this evening

More unrest was expected this evening in western Russian cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, as protesters vented their fury, holding up ‘no to mobilisation’ signs

Some alleged people already had been turned back from Russia’s land border with Georgia and that the website of the state Russian railway company collapsed because too many people were checking for ways out of the country.

Putin’s apocalyptic nuclear warnings have prompted even China to demand a ceasefire ‘through dialogue and consultation’, while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Putin should return all occupied land, including Crimea, to its ‘rightful owners’.  

Meanwhile the US will retaliate with ‘a devastating strike’ if Putin uses nuclear weapons, the United States Army’s former European commander has warned.  

Russian Railways and Aeroflot said they hadn’t ‘yet’ been ordered to ban men aged 18 to 65 from boarding. 

A group based in Serbia, Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Serbs Together Against War, tweeted that there were no available flights to Belgrade from Russia until mid-October. Flights to Turkey, Georgia or Armenia also sold out, according to the Belgrade-based group. 

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, said Putin was sending more Russians to their deaths for a failing war.

‘It is clear that the criminal war is getting worse, deepening, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible in this,’ Navalny said in a video message from jail recorded and published by his lawyers.

‘He wants to smear hundreds of thousands of people in this blood,’ Navalny said.

The tyrant’s announcement, made in an early-morning television address, raised fears that some men of fighting age would not be allowed to leave Russia. 

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the call-up would be limited to those with experience as professional soldiers, and that students and those who had only served as conscripts would not be called up.

Nevertheless, the move has raised fears of mass conscription in the worrying escalation of the war.


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