Saudi-backed talks to release detainees from Russian forces in Ukraine began in April

Ten men were returned from captivity on Wednesday after mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Shaun Pinner, second right, one of five Britons released from captivity by Russian-backed forces, with his family. PA
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Saudi-backed negotiations to release prisoners of war captured by Russian forces in Ukraine began in April, the country's foreign minister said on Friday.

Ten men were returned from captivity on Wednesday after mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

They included Britons Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, Andrew Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill, who arrived in the UK early on Thursday.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir said the Crown Prince personally worked on the deal to release the detainees over several months. He said it was correct that negotiations began in April.

“There was an initiative by his royal highness the Crown Prince to try to find a way of facilitating some dialogue and we learnt about the issue of these foreign detainees and engaged with the UK and others and of course Russia and Ukraine to work towards the end of getting them out,” he told the Radio 4 Today programme on Friday.

He said the deal was linked to Turkey’s efforts to get more than 200 Ukrainian prisoners of war released in exchange for Russian soldiers and a politician.

“It was necessary to achieve a breakthrough on the issue of these 10 foreign nationals in order for the other deal to go ahead and that exchange happened when the 10 nationals arrived in Saudi territory and were verified, [which] allowed the other exchange to go ahead,” Mr Al Jubeir said.

Prisoners of war arriving in Saudi Arabia after being released by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine. Saudi Press Agency

“All parties understood that that is an important part of the transaction. From my perspective Ukraine felt that this was a part of their interest and they were keen to get them out and it was necessary to facilitate the broader deal and have them out as well and that’s where the Crown Prince’s intervention was crucial and critical. Everybody was keen that we saw a deal that covers everybody,” he said

Mr Al Jubeir said the country hoped to build on the work to address the issues underlying the conflict.

“We are committed to negotiating a settlement and at the same time we have made clear our position on the invasion,” he said.

“We have condemned it at the UN National Assembly but we want to keep an open dialogue with all parties. We feel it is very important the relationship we have with Russia, it is, we believe, helpful in facilitating this transaction and potential future dialogues and we think that it is important to keep all contact open.”

He said the world must look for other potential opportunities to negotiate peace.

“Now we must engage to look for these opportunities, I cannot predict when that will happen but I hope it will be sooner rather than later. This mediation gives us hope that will happen.”

On Friday it emerged that former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich welcomed the British prisoners of war on to a flight out of Russia.

Mr Harding said Mr Abramovich identified himself to Mr Pinner on the flight leaving Russia, while Mr Harding spoke to Mr Abramovich's assistant who said the Russian had played a "key part" in their release.

Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin 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.

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.”

Updated: September 23, 2022, 3:15 PM