Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner released by Russia 'by skin of their teeth'

The British men were among 10 prisoners of war released after intervention by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner were on Thursday celebrating their release. Reuters / AFP
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Two British men released by Russia in Ukraine were back in the UK on Thursday after getting out “by the skin of their teeth”.

Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were among 10 prisoners of war, five of whom are British, released on Wednesday after mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Mr Aslin thanked the Saudi authorities for their help as he arrived home in the UK.

The UK’s Foreign Office has confirmed the names of the other Britons as Andrew Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill. The trio went on trial last month in the city of Donetsk on charges of acting as mercenaries.

On Wednesday, a video emerged of the former prisoners of war sitting on a plane after their release, in which Mr Aslin introduces himself and Mr Pinner and says: “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 said: “By the skin of our teeth.”

Mr Aslin continued: “We just want everyone to know the good news, et cetera, so thanks to everyone that's been supporting us and whatnot, so it's really muchly appreciated.”

Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everybody.”

The Saudi Press Agency released pictures that also showed another British man, Mr Harding, among the group freed in the prisoner exchange.

Non-profit organisation the Presidium Network, which has been supporting Mr Healy's family, told the BBC on Thursday that all five were now “back safely in the UK”.

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

Speaking on Sky News outside his home in Nottinghamshire on Thursday, Mr Aslin said: “I just want to thank [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, the Saudi authorities, everyone else who was involved in our release.

“In the next few days we will say what we want to say to the media. But please respect that we want privacy after the traumatic experience we have been through.

“When I am ready to talk to the media, I will be ready to talk.”

On Thursday evening the family of Mr Pinner spoke about his release.

“We would like to thank everybody involved in Shaun’s release, especially all at the Foreign Office, [British Prime Minister] Liz Truss and her team, [former UK PM] Boris Johnson and President Zelenskyy.

“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.

“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. We are now enjoying some family time and would appreciate the privacy at this moment.”

On Friday, one of five Britons released from captivity by Russian-backed forces has said that former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich welcomed them on to their flight out of Russia.

Mr Harding told The Sun that Mr Abramovich identified himself to Mr Pinner.

He said he spoke to Mr Abramovich’s assistant who said the Russian billionaire had played a “key part” in their release.

“Shaun was chatting away to him about football for a long time and I was speaking to his assistant,” Mr Harding said.

“She said Roman had played a key part in getting us back. It’s quite extraordinary to think he was involved and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who he was by looking at him.

“He’s well respected by Ukrainians and massively by us now, too. He’s done a hell of a lot for us and we couldn’t thank him enough.

“He was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend. We absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.”

The release of the men came on the same day that Russia announced it would be calling up 300,000 reservists to bolster its forces in Ukraine.

An intelligence update from the UK’s Ministry of Defence said Russia was likely to encounter difficulties with the plan.

“Russia is likely to struggle with the logistical and administrative challenges of even mustering the 300,000 personnel,” the ministry said on Twitter.

“It will probably attempt to stand up new formations with many of these troops, which are unlikely to be combat effective for months.

“Even this limited mobilisation is likely to be highly unpopular with parts of the Russian population.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is accepting considerable political risk in the hope of generating much-needed combat power.

“The move is effectively an admission that Russia has exhausted its supply of willing volunteers to fight in Ukraine.”

Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner were sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in July after being convicted of acting as mercenaries in Ukraine.

The pair, who are both married to Ukrainian partners, moved to Ukraine in 2018.

They each served in Ukraine’s armed forces for years before Russia’s invasion and were captured in Mariupol defending the besieged city.

On Wednesday night, Mr Aslin’s mother, Angela Wood, described her emotions after news of his release.

“If it's true, it's a big relief,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “He is a very brave man. But I cannot comment at the moment.”

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

“The relevant Saudi authorities received and transferred them from Russia to the kingdom and are facilitating procedures for their safe return to their respective countries,” the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said afte their releases wee announced.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses the gratitude and appreciation of the government of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Russian Federation and to Ukraine for their response to the efforts made by the Crown Prince for the release of the PoWs.”

UK officials thanked Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and said they were grateful for their assistance in arranging the prisoner swap.

“I welcome the safe return of Ukrainian prisoners of war and one civilian, including five British nationals,” UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

“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 and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey.”

Urey, 45, died in captivity in July after he was charged with carrying out “mercenary activities” in the Donetsk People's Republic.

Russian authorities claimed the aid worker, from Manchester, had died as a result of “illness and stress”.

But Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his body, which was returned this month, showed signs of “possible unspeakable torture”.

Urey’s sister, Lyndsey Coulton, told the Daily Mail: “It’s been a real mixed bag of emotions.

“I’m so, so happy for those let go and their families too. But it was just too late for Paul. If the prisoner swap had happened in April, like it was supposed to, he would still be here.

“This news won’t bring Paul back. He’ll still come home in a coffin.”

Updated: September 23, 2022, 12:32 AM
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