Five Brits who were captured by Russian-backed forces have been released and said they were welcomed onto a plane by ex-Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.
During an interview with the Sun, John Harding recalled that Mr Abramovich identified himself to Shaun Pinner. Meanwhile, Mr Harding spoke to the oligarch's assistant who said the Russian national had played a "key part" in their release.
It is understood that Mr Harding was set free on Wednesday alongside Mr Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy, and Andrew Hill, with the group landing in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.
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Mr Abramovich said he would sell Chelsea on March 2, following news of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The 55-year-old was among a number of Russian nationals who were sanctioned by the UK government on March 10 after Downing Street claimed it had evidence of his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And speaking to The Sun, Mr Harding said the ex-Chelsea owner was there to greet them on the flight.
"Shaun was chatting away to him about football for a long time and I was speaking to his assistant. She said Roman had played a key part in getting us back.
"It’s quite extraordinary to think he was involved — and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who he was by looking at him. He’s well respected by Ukrainians and massively by us now, too — he’s done a hell of a lot for us and we couldn’t thank him enough.
“He was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend — we absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.” According to Mr Pinner's family, he is in "good spirits" and "is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine".
Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin were sentenced to death in July by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The pair had lived in Ukraine for a number of years and were serving with its regular forces when the war broke out.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Pinner’s family said: “We would like to thank everybody involved in Shaun’s release, especially all 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 assisted in the negotiations for his freedom.
“It’s a very emotional time as you can expect and we are unable to currently discuss so early in his release any details fully. It’s been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family which has now had such a happy resolution. Shaun is in good spirits and still has his sense of humour intact. He is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.
“We are now enjoying some family time and would appreciate the privacy at this moment.”
The Brits former commander, Mamuka Mamulashvii, told the PA news agency: "All those guys did their best to defend democracy and freedom. 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 Harding was singled out for his contribution to the legion, where he trained young volunteers as an instructor.
Mr Mamulashvii added: "He is one of the best representatives of his nation who came here to defend Ukraine and I give him my respect."
Dominik Byrne, co-founder of the Presidium Network, which has supported the family of Mr Healy, 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.”
Mr Aslin's mother, Angela Wood, told the BBC that at times she believed she would never "see him alive again".
She added: "His release happened overnight, I’m still in shock. The first thing I needed to do was to give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It still doesn’t feel real now.”
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who was 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.”
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