Five Britons captured by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine ‘return to the UK’

It is understood John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill have been released alongside Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Russian invasion of Ukraine

Five Britons captured in Ukraine by pro-Russian forces have returned to the UK, it has been reported, after being released on Wednesday.

It is understood John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were set free alongside Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin.

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 BBC on Thursday all five were “back safely in the UK”.

Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the organisation, which has been providing aid to Kyiv, said the men were “looking forward to normality with their families after this horrific ordeal”.

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.”

Liz Truss visit to US for the United Nations General Assembly
Liz Truss is visiting New York for a UN summit where world leaders are discussing the ongoing war in Ukraine (Toby Melville/PA)

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.

Associated Press said 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.”

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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