Ten prisoners of war, including U.S. and British citizens, have been transferred to Saudi Arabia as part of an exchange between Russia and Ukraine, Saudi officials said Wednesday.
The Saudi foreign ministry said on Twitter that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, had mediated the release.
The timing of the release was striking, coming just hours after President Vladimir Putin of Russia intensified his war effort in Ukraine by announcing plans to call up roughly 300,000 reservists to fight while also taking the West to task over its support for Ukraine with a veiled threat of using nuclear weapons.
The arrest of foreigners in Ukraine has alarmed human rights advocates and Western governments, raising questions about the protections afforded to thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in the country, some of whom have been taken prisoner on the battlefield.
Among those released were Alex Drueke, 39, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, according to his aunt, Dianna Shaw. Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, a former U.S. Marine, was also released, according to Shaw, who said she had been texting Huynh’s family. “We’re just so deeply grateful,” Shaw said.
Drueke and Huynh disappeared together when their platoon came under “heavy fire” June 9, leading all its members to fall back except for the two of them, according to a statement from Drueke’s family. They had volunteered to fight in Ukraine and were captured near the city of Kharkiv on June 9 while fighting alongside other foreign soldiers.
Five British citizens who had been held in Ukraine by Russian-backed proxies have been released, Prime Minister Liz Truss said, calling it “hugely welcome news.” Truss thanked President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and Saudi Arabia for their help securing the citizens’ release.
“Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends,” she said.
In addition to the United States and Britain, the prisoners released were from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia. The Saudi ministry said it was working to return those released to their home countries.
Robert Jenrick, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, wrote on Twitter that Aiden Aslin was among the prisoners who was released. Aslin’s hometown of Newark is in Jenrick’s district.
Aslin was one of three men — including Shaun Pinner, a British citizen, and Brahim Saadoun, a Moroccan — who were sentenced to death in June by a court in Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine. Prosecutors had accused the three men of being mercenaries and terrorists who were seeking to violently overthrow the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia has recognized.
“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,” Jenrick wrote. “As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace.”
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