Ukraine war: Britons held by Russian forces reunite with family

By Aoife Walsh & Emma Vardy
BBC News

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Watch: We got out by the skin of our teeth - freed Briton

Five British nationals captured by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine have returned to the UK.

Aiden Aslin, John Harding, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and Shaun Pinner have now been reunited with their families.

Ten detainees, including the five Britons, were released after Saudi Arabia said it had brokered an exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

The Presidium Network, a non-profit group, confirmed the five men were now safely home.

Mr Pinner's sister, Cassandra Pinner, told the BBC: "We are just so happy he's home, safe and sound. He's in good spirits - just as funny as always!"

In a statement issued through the Foreign Office, the family said "it's been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family which has now had such a happy resolution" and they are "now enjoying some family time".

Image source, Debbie Price
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Mr Pinner with his family, including son Evan (front left), his sister Cassandra (front right) and mother Debbie

In a video recorded on the plane, Mr Pinner, from Bedfordshire, said they had escaped "by the skin of our teeth".

"We're now out of the danger zone and on our way home to our families," added Mr Aslin, from Nottinghamshire, who has now been reunited with his Ukrainian fiancé Diana Okovyta.

A picture taken at Heathrow shows the couple together, shortly after Mr Aslin arrived back in the UK on Thursday morning.

"He promised to come back and he did," Ms Okovyta wrote on social media, adding she was "so grateful" to those who helped facilitate his release.

Image source, Diana Okovyta
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Diana Okovyta with her fiancé Aiden Aslin after his return to the UK

Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the UK-based Presidium Network - which has been supporting the family of Mr Healy - said they were all "looking forward to normality with their families after this horrific ordeal".

Mr Aslin, Mr Pinner, Mr Harding, and Mr Hill, 35, from Plymouth, were captured while fighting with Ukrainian forces.

Mr Healy, who is in his early 20s and from Cambridgeshire, had been volunteering in Ukraine as an aid worker when he was captured by Russian-backed forces at a checkpoint in April, alongside Paul Urey, who died in July while in detention.

The UK government has not confirmed the process that led to the men's release.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Pinner, wearing orange, to the left of Mr Aslin and Mr Harding

In July, a court in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic had sentenced Mr Aslin, 28, and Mr Pinner, 48, to death.

Mr Harding, in his 50s, from Sunderland, was one of several others awaiting trial.

Prime Minister Liz Truss said the news of the release ended "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".

In his nightly address, Mr Zelensky said he was "sincerely grateful to everyone who contributed" to the release of the Britons.

"The enemy sentenced them to a long prison term or the death penalty. We saved their lives," Mr Zelensky said.

Mr Aslin's local MP, Robert Jenrick, told BBC News his family were "over the moon".

"They've been through months of torture, strain and stress as a result of this," the MP for Newark said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly welcomed the release of the British nationals but added: "Tragically that was not the case for one of those detained and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey."

News of their release came on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation of military reservists following a series of setbacks on the battlefield.

Their return was part of one of the most significant prisoner swaps of the war so far, with 215 Ukrainian soldiers released - including commanders of the Azov regiment, which defended Mariupol - by Russia.

In exchange, Ukraine handed over 55 Russian soldiers, as well as the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician and oligarch Victor Medvechuk, who was facing charges of treason.

In Moscow, officials are celebrating their soldiers' return. The Kremlin said the released prisoners were receiving the "necessary psychological and medical assistance".