One of five Britons freed from captivity by Russian-backed forces has said they were greeted by former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich as they left Russia.
In an interview with The Sun, John Harding said Mr Abramovich had identified himself as Shaun Pinner, while Mr Harding spoke to Mr Abramovich’s assistant who said the Russian played a “key part” in their release.
It is understood that Mr Harding was released on Wednesday, along with Mr Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill, who landed in Britain early on Thursday.
Abramovich announced he would sell Chelsea on March 2 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The UK government fined the 55-year-old on March 10, with Downing Street claiming it had proven his links to Vladimir Putin.
“Shaun had a long chat with him about football and I spoke to his assistant,” Harding told The Sun.
“He said Roman played a key role in getting us back. It’s pretty extraordinary to think he was involved – and I couldn’t have told who he was even by looking at him.
“Ukrainians respect him well and so do we now – he has done a lot for us and we couldn’t thank him enough.
“He was a good boy, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend – we love him very much and I’m very grateful for his efforts.
Mr Pinner’s family said he was in “good spirits” after his release and was “looking forward to a glass of red wine”.
A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sentenced Pinner and Aslin to death in July.
It has been an agonizing time for Shaun and our family, which has now come to such a happy resolution
They had both lived in Ukraine for several years and were serving with its regular forces when full-scale war broke out.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Pinner’s family said: “We would like to thank everyone involved in Shaun’s release, especially everyone at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss and her team, Boris Johnson and (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelensky. .
“Shaun would also like to thank the hospitality of the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, who also helped negotiate his freedom.
“This is a very emotional time as you would expect and we are unable to fully discuss the details at this stage of his release. It has been an agonizing time for Shaun and our family to now have such a happy decision. Shaun is in good spirits and his sense of humor is still intact .She expects a steak and a glass of red wine tonight.
“We are now enjoying family time and would appreciate some privacy now.”
A photo released by the Foreign Office showed a beaming Mr Pinner with his loved ones.
British nationals freed by pro-Russian forces have been named by their former commander as three defenders of “democracy and freedom” in Ukraine.
Harding, Pinner and Aslin are believed to have served in the Georgian Legion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer unit under Mamuka Mamulashvili.
“All these guys did their best to defend democracy and freedom,” Mamulashvili told the PA news agency.
He is one of the best representatives of his nation who came here to defend Ukraine and I respect him
“They were in the Georgia Legion around the same time … and they were perfect guys.
“It was very important for us to get these guys out of prison because I’ve been in prison myself and I know what it’s like.”
Mamulašvili singled out Harding, a veteran of the British Army, for his contribution to the Legion, where he trained younger volunteers as instructors.
“He is one of the best representatives of his nation who came here to defend Ukraine and I respect him,” he said.
The Presidium Network, a non-profit organization supporting the Healy family, told PA that all five have landed safely in the UK and have been reunited with their families.
Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the organization, said: “We don’t know for sure if they have all returned to their homes yet, but we do know they are now with families.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not commented on the whereabouts of the men.
Mr Aslin’s release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick.
The first thing I did was give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It still doesn’t seem real
His mother Angela Wood told the BBC that sometimes she thought she would “never see him alive again”.
“His release happened overnight, I’m still in shock,” he said.
“The first thing I had to do was give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It doesn’t feel like it even now.”
Ms Wood also said Russian separatists, who detained Mr Aslin during what she described as family torture, were contacting him asking for money.
A video emerged late on Wednesday of the two men on the plane, in which Mr Aslin introduced himself and Mr Pinner, adding: “We just want to let everyone know that we are now out of the danger zone and on our way home to our families.”
Mr Pinner interjected, saying “by the skin of our teeth”, while Mr Aslin continued: “We just want everyone to know the good news etc, so thank you to everyone who has supported us and whatnot, so it’s very much appreciated.”
Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everyone.”
Prime Minister Liz Truss, visiting New York for the UN summit, tweeted: “Very welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed agents in eastern Ukraine have been returned safely, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”
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