British nationals released by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine back in the UK

·7-min read
British nationals released by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine back in the UK

Five British nationals held by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine have now returned to the UK, according to reports.

Aiden Aslin, John Harding, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and Shaun Pinner have been reunited with their families after landing at Heathrow Airport, according to a UK non-profit.

The five were released after Saudi Arabia said it had brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine.

Shaun Pinner, 48, is planning to celebrate his freedom with a meal of steak and red wine on Thursday night, his family said.

A statement they released on Thursday evening said: “It’s a very emotional time as you can expect and we are unable to currently discuss so early in his release any details fully. It’s been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family which has now had such a happy resolution.

“Shaun is in good spirits and still has his sense of humour intact. He is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.”

It also said: “We would like to thank everybody involved in Shaun’s release, especially all at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss and her team, Boris Johnson and President Zelensky.

Shaun would also like to thank the hospitality of the Saudi Government and Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud who also assisted in the negotiations for his freedom.”

Speaking to The Times from his home in Potton, Bedfordshire, Mr Pinner’s stepfather Lyndon Price, described the experience of collecting his stepson from Heathrow early on Thursday morning as “very emotional”.

“We are very, very happy that he is home,” he said. “It is fantastic news. His son is here, my wife is here and so is his sister. We are all together.”

He said Pinner has “been through quite a lot” but “is well” and “so pleased to be home”.

“My wife has been through so much stress,” he said. “We are just pleased he is alive. We have been living on the edge for months with the death penalty hanging over him.”

He added that Pinner has enjoyed “a couple of beers” and a shave since arriving home.

Aiden Aslin has been reunited with his family (YouTube/Graham Phillips)
Aiden Aslin has been reunited with his family (YouTube/Graham Phillips)

Meanwhile, Aiden Aslin, 28, told reporters outside his home in Newark of his gratitude to Ukrainian president Zelensky, and Saudi authorities.

He told Sky News on Thursday: “I want to thank everyone who helped secure our release - President Zelensky, the Saudi authorities, everyone else that was involved in our release.

“In the next few days each of us will say what we need to say to the media, but please respect that we want to be in privacy after the traumatic experience that we’ve been through.”

The Presidium Network, a non-profit which had been supporting the family of Mr Healy, say all five men are now safely home.

Co-founder Dominik Byrne, told the BBC the men were all “looking forward to normality with their families after this horrific ordeal”.

Liz Truss announced the men’s release on Wednesday evening, thanking Ukraine’s 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.

Three of the men, Aiden Aslin, John Harding and Shaun Pinner, were captured while fighting with Ukraine. Pictures emerged on Thursday showing the three detainees arriving off a plane in Riyadh.

Speaking in a video posted from their plane to Riyadh, Mr 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.”

Mr Pinner added: “By the skin of our teeth.”

Their release was part of an unexpected prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, brokered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the largest since the war began and involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a prolonged Ukrainian defence of Mariupol earlier this year.

Mr Aslin added: “It’s just us, there were 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.”

His fellow UK national added: “Thanks to everyone, I can’t say thank you enough.”

Ten foreign prisoners were freed in total, including American, British, Croatian, Moroccan and Swedish nationals, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that a plane carrying the prisoners landed in the kingdom.

The ministry added that the “relevant Saudi authorities received and transferred them from Russia to the kingdom and are facilitating procedures for their respective countries”.

Robert Jenrick, MP for Newham, earlier confirmed that Aiden Aslin was among those freed.

Mr Aslin was one of three Britons, along with Shaun Pinner and Morocco-born Brahim Saadoun, who were captured earlier this year and sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine.

"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," he said.

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

Two British citizens Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim, center, sit behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk (AP)
Two British citizens Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim, center, sit behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk (AP)

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."

Mr Urey, a British aid volunteer, died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

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".

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.

Further details about the British nationals and the process that led to their release have not yet been released by the Government.

In other developments, Ms Truss said that "sham referendums" in Ukraine will not be recognised in a warning to Vladimir Putin.

It comes after the Russian President effectively announced plans to annex four Ukrainian provinces, saying Moscow would assist with referendums on joining Ukraine's Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions to Russia.

“Putin’s calls for mobilisation are a sure sign his barbaric invasion is failing,” Ms Truss said.

“Any sham referendums in Ukrainian territory will not be recognised.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP) (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP) (AP)

The move creates the necessary pretext for Mr Putin to claim that Ukraine and Nato, without any evidence, pose an existential threat to Russia - allowing him to justify the use of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin has previously issued nuclear threats to the west throughout the course of the war.

Addressing the Russian people in a televised broadcast on Wednesday, Mr Putin warned that Moscow would use “all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people” - including the use of “weapons of destruction”.

“It's not a bluff,” he added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he thought Putin would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons but that the threat showed why it was important to stand up to him.

"I don't believe that he will use these weapons. I don't think the world will allow him to use these weapons," Mr Zelensky said in remarks reported by Germany's Bild newspaper.

Elsewhere, police across Russia detained hundreds of people for protesting against the mobilisation, the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info said.

In the Siberian city of Irkutsk, at least 10 of 60 protesters who gathered at a central square were detained, according to local activists, the Moscow Times reports.

In Russia’s third-largest city Novosibirsk, video published to social media showed a protester shouting “I don’t want to die for Putin or for you”.