Five Britons who were detained by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have been released and are being safely returned, Liz Truss has said.
The prime minister 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 Zelenskyy and Saudi Arabia for their assistance.
“Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends,” she added.
Health minister Robert Jenrick said one of those freed was his constituent Aiden Aslin.
In April, Mr Aslin was one of two British men captured by Russian forces and accused of being a mercenary.
They appeared before a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a breakaway region in eastern Ukraine.
The identities of all those released are yet to be confirmed by the government.
Mr Jenrick tweeted: “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.
“Aiden’s return brings to an end, months of agonizing 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.”
He later told Sky News it had been an “absolutely harrowing experience” for Mr Aslin.
“First he was captured, then he was put on trial in a Soviet era-type sham trial and sentenced to death by firing squad. Then he was mistreated and physically abused by his captors and used for propaganda purposes by Russia and its puppets.”
He added: “It’s been a really sorry episode that speaks to his (President Vladimir Putin‘s) disregard for international law and human life. These were legitimate prisoners of war who should have been treated with respect.
“We are over the moon, he is on his way home.”
Family members of Britons facing death penalty in Donetsk spoke of their devastation at their capture
US nationals also freed
The Foreign Office had been working for months to support those detained, but it is believed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman was also involved in helping with their release.
Mr Jenrick said he believed the Crown Prince had been asked because not only was Saudi Arabia “an ally and partner of the UK” but also because it is a country, through its role in OPEC (the group of oil-producing nations), that has an ongoing relationship with Russia.
British fighter filmed singing Russian national anthem after being captured by Putin’s forces
Mr Jenrick told Sky News he did not know if any money had changed hands between Russia and Ukraine.
“I don’t know the full details…these negotiations are very delicate, and the full circumstances may never be known.
“Russia has done prisoner exchanges with Ukraine in the past…so it’s not, in that sense, unusual but what was unusual in this case is that it was involving foreign nationals.”
Aside from the five Britons, two US military veterans who disappeared while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces have also been released after about three months in captivity.
Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, went missing after their unit came under heavy fire in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border on 9 June.
‘Months of Suffering’
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly welcomed the news of all the releases.
“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,” he added.
Though he also remembered Paul Urey, a British aid volunteer who died earlier this year while being detained in similar circumstances, and said “our thoughts remain with the family”.