ive British nationals held by Russian-backed forces have been released, Prime Minister Liz Truss has said.
“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 tweeted on Wednesday evening.
She thanked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “for his efforts to secure the release of detainees, and Saudi Arabia for their assistance”.
“Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends,” Ms Truss added.
It follows mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.
The freed prisoners were American, British, Croatian, Moroccan and Swedish nationals, the ministry said in a statement, adding that a plane carrying the prisoners landed in the kingdom.
The ministry added that the “relevant Saudi authorities received and transferred them from Russia to the kingdom and are facilitating procedures for their respective countries”.
Robert Jenrick, MP for Newham, confirmed that Aiden Aslin was among those freed.
Mr Aslin was one of three Britons, along with Shaun Pinner and Morocco-born Brahim Saadoun, who were captured earlier this year and sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine.
“Aiden’s return brings to an end months of agonising uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark who suffered every day of Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope,” he said.
“As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the release “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.”
Mr Urey, a British aid volunteer, died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
Allan Hogarth, from Amnesty International UK, called it a “huge relief after a “sham judicial process apparently designed to exert diplomatic pressure on the UK”.
Large numbers of foreigners have travelled to Ukraine to fight since Russia’s February 24 invasion. Some of them have been caught by Russian forces, along with other foreigners in the country who say they were not fighters.
Further details about the British nationals and the process that led to their release have not yet been released by the Government.
In other developments, Ms Truss said that “sham referendums” in Ukraine will not be recognised in a warning to Vladimir Putin.
It comes after the Russian President effectively announced plans to annex four Ukrainian provinces, saying Moscow would assist with referendums on joining Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions to Russia.
“Putin’s calls for mobilisation are a sure sign his barbaric invasion is failing,” Ms Truss said.
“Any sham referendums in Ukrainian territory will not be recognised.”
The move creates the necessary pretext for Mr Putin to claim that Ukraine and Nato, without any evidence, pose an existential threat to Russia – allowing him to justify the use of nuclear weapons. The Kremlin has previously issued nuclear threats to the west throughout the course of the war.
Addressing the Russian people in a televised broadcast on Wednesday, Mr Putin warned that Moscow would use “all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people” – including the use of “weapons of destruction”.
“It’s not a bluff,” he added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he thought Putin would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons but that the threat showed why it was important to stand up to him.
“I don’t believe that he will use these weapons. I don’t think the world will allow him to use these weapons,” Mr Zelensky said in remarks reported by Germany’s Bild newspaper.
Elsewhere, police across Russia detained hundreds of people for protesting against the mobilisation, the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info said.
In the Siberian city of Irkutsk, at least 10 of 60 protesters who gathered at a central square were detained, according to local activists, the Moscow Times reports.
In Russia’s third-largest city Novosibirsk, video published to social media showed a protester shouting “I don’t want to die for Putin or for you”.