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Britons freed by Russian-backed forces hailed as ‘defenders of democracy’

Five men held by Russian separatists have been freed (Yui Mok/PA)
Five men held by Russian separatists have been freed (Yui Mok/PA)

Three Britons released from captivity by Russian-backed forces have been hailed as defenders of “democracy and freedom” by their former commander in Ukraine.

It is understood that John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were set free alongside Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on Wednesday, landing in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Three of the five – Mr Harding, Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin – are believed to have served in the Georgian Legion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer unit, under Mamuka Mamulashvili.

“All those guys did their best to defend democracy and freedom,” Mr Mamulashvili told the PA news agency.

“They were in the Georgian Legion at approximately the same time… and they were perfect guys.

“It was very important for us to get those guys out of captivity because I’ve been in captivity myself and I know what it is.”

Mr Mamulashvili singled out Mr Harding, a veteran of the British Army, for his contribution to the legion, where he trained younger volunteers as an instructor.

“He is one of the best representatives of his nation who came here to defend Ukraine and I give him my respect,” he said.

Non-profit organisation the Presidium Network, which has supported the family of Mr Healy, told PA that all five had landed safely in the UK and been reunited with their families.

Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the organisation, said: “We don’t know exactly if they’ve all returned back to their homes yet, but we do know they’re with families at the moment.”

The Foreign Office has not commented on the whereabouts of the men.

Mr Aslin’s release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick while multiple reports also indicated that Mr Pinner would be returning home.

A video emerged late on Wednesday of two men sitting inside an airliner, in which Mr Aslin introduced himself and Mr Pinner, adding: “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 interjected “by the skin of our teeth,” as Mr Aslin continued: “We just want everyone to know the good news etc, so thanks to everyone that’s been supporting us and what not, so it’s really muchly appreciated.”

Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everybody.”

A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic had sentenced both men to death in July.

Prime Minister Liz Truss, who is visiting New York for a UN summit, tweeted: “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 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.

Mr Harding, along with Mr Hill and Mr Healy, went on trial last month in the city of Donetsk, Russian media reported.

The three, along with Swede Matthias Gustafsson and Croat Vjekoslav Prebeg, all pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenarism and “undergoing training to seize power by force”, according to Russian media.

The next court hearing in their case was scheduled for October, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a statement by the separatists’ court.

Mr Jenrick said he was “deeply grateful” to the Ukrainian government, as well as the Saudi Crown Prince and the Foreign Office, for securing the release.

He added: “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.

“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”.

He continued: “Tragically that was not the case for one of those detained and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey.”

The British aid volunteer died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Mr Byrne said he was “completely relieved and so pleased” that the five men had returned to Britain, but added that he was “still thinking” of Mr Urey’s family.

Allan Hogarth, from Amnesty International UK, called the news a “huge relief” after a “sham judicial process apparently designed to exert diplomatic pressure on the UK”.