One of five Britons released from captivity by Russian-backed troops has said former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich welcomed them on their flight from Russia.
In an interview with The Sun, John Harding said Mr Abramovich identified himself to Shaun Pinner, while Mr Harding spoke to Mr Abramovich’s aide who said the Russian had played a “key role” in their release.
It is understood that Mr Harding was released on Wednesday along with Mr Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill and landed in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Abramovich announced that he would sell Chelsea on March 2, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The 55-year-old was subsequently sanctioned by the British government on March 10, with Downing Street claiming to have proven his ties to Vladimir Putin.
“Shaun was chatting to him about football for a long time and I spoke to his assistant,” Mr Harding told The Sun.
“She said Roman played a key role in getting us back. It’s very special to think he was involved – and I couldn’t even have told you who he was by looking at him.
“He is highly respected by the Ukrainians and now greatly by us – he’s done an awful lot for us and we can’t thank him enough.
“He was a healthy guy, a really nice guy. He is a legend – we absolutely love him and I am so grateful for his efforts.”
Mr Pinner’s family said he was “in a good mood” and “looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine” upon his release.
A court in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic had sentenced Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin to death in July.
It has been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family who now has such a happy resolution
They had both lived in Ukraine for several years and were serving in the regular armed forces when the full-scale war broke out.
In a statement released by the State Department, Mr Pinner’s family said: “We would like to thank everyone involved in Shaun’s release, especially everyone at the State Department, 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.
“It is a very emotional time as you can expect and we are currently unable to fully discuss all the details so early in his release. It has been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family who now have such a happy solution. Shaun is in a good mood and still has his sense of humor intact. He’s looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.
“We are enjoying some family time now and would appreciate the privacy at this time.”
A photo released by the State Department showed a radiant Mr. Pinner with his loved ones.
Three of the British nationals liberated by pro-Russian forces were hailed by their former commander in Ukraine as defenders of “democracy and freedom”.
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 have done their best to defend democracy and freedom,” Mr Mamulashvili told the PA news agency.
He is one of the best representatives of his nation who came here to defend Ukraine and I pay him my respects
“They were in the Georgian Legion at about 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 credited Mr Harding, a veteran of the British Army, for his contribution to the Legion, where he trained younger volunteers to become instructors.
“He is one of the best representatives of his country who came here to defend Ukraine and I pay him my respects,” he said.
The nonprofit Presidium Network, which has supported Mr Healy’s family, told PA that all five had landed safely in the UK and reunited with their families.
Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the organization, said: “We don’t know exactly if they have all returned to their homes yet, but we do know they are with families at the moment.”
The State Department 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 had to do was give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It still doesn’t feel real
His mother, Angela Wood, told the TSWT she sometimes thought she would “never see him alive again”.
“His release happened overnight, I’m still in shock,” she said.
“The first thing I had to do was give him a big hug and make sure it was real. Now it still doesn’t feel real.”
Ms Wood also said that, during a period she described as “torture” for the family, the Russian separatists holding Aslin would contact her to ask for money.
Late on Wednesday, a video surfaced of two men sitting on a passenger plane, in which Mr. Aslin introduced himself and Mr. Pinner, adding: “We want to let everyone know that we are now out of harm’s way and that we are on our feet.” stand. way home to our families.”
Mr. Pinner intervened, saying “on the skin of our teeth,” as Mr. Aslin continued, “We just want everyone to know the good news, etc., so thank you to everyone who has supported us and what not, so it is really much appreciated.”
Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everyone.”
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who visited New York for a UN summit, tweeted: “Huge welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being returned safely, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families. .”