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Belfast Live
Jilly Beattie

Roman Abramovich negotiated release of British POWs jailed by Russian separatists in Ukraine

Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich played a key role in negotiating the release of five British POWs from their Ukraine prison hell, it has been claimed.

The five - some having been locked up on death row - enjoyed an emotional welcome back to the UK with their families via Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

One of the men, former British Army soldier, Andrew Hill, 35, was injured in a shooting and detained in the Russian-occupied Mykolayiv region. He shared details of his experience with a fellow passenger, engineer Alec Pettet whose family lives in Newtownards, Co Down. Mr Hill revealed that former Chelsea FC owner Abramovich, 55, had acted as a go-between with the Kremlin for their release.

Read more: Census 2021: People in NI have 'multiplicity of identities' experts say

The hostages said they had been badly beaten by Moscow’s spooks and the separatists who held them during their months-long ordeal.

The men - John Harding, who is in his 50s, Dylan Healy, 22, Andrew Hill, Shaun Pinner, 48, and Aiden Aslin, 28, - boarded a BA flight from King Khalid International Airport, Saudi at 12.35am on Thursday. As they landed a tannoy announcement said: "Would the nine people, you know who you are, please make your way to disembark ahead of other passengers”

Saudi officials had given the men I-phones so they could call home and when they landed at Heathrow they were de-briefed and quizzed by officials before joining their families.

Fellow passenger Mr Pettet, 49, told Belfast Live exclusively: "They were all pretty tired and they said they'd been badly beaten by Donbass rebels and the Russian secret police.

"Andrew Hill, said that Roman Abramovich had helped secure their safety as part of a group involved in negotiating their release.

Former Russian POWs Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy on a BA flight from Saudi to London after their ordeal which saw them both placed on death row (Belfast Live)

"I explained I'd read about them in the paper and then I'd realised who they were when I heard Andrew tell one of the air stewardesses that he'd been shot in Ukraine. Andrew Hill said they'd been very scared and . . .they'd feared the worst."

Mr Pettet said he spoke to the men after hearing one of them had been shot while in Ukraine and added that the five Britons were seated together and although they appeared exhausted by their ordeal, they remained in good spirits and were happy to chat with other passengers.

Mr Pettet explained: ""One of the men, Andrew Hill, told me that Roman Abramovich had helped secure their safety as part of a group involved in negotiating their release. He didn't know much more about it but he was very grateful.

"It was very obviously a huge relief to be on a BA flight and on the way back to the UK after what they'd been through. They were all pretty tired and they said they'd been badly beaten by Donbass rebels and the Russian secret police, but still, they made it out and were able to tell their story.

Former Russian POWs John Harding and Aidan Aslin, glad to be heading to the UK (Belfast Live)

"I spoke with the men shortly after we took off from Saudi. I just wanted to let them know I was glad to know they were safe and had made it out alive. The five of them were sitting together and wanted to know if people knew anything about their story.

"I explained that I'd read about them in the paper and then I'd realised who they were when I heard Andrew tell one of the air stewardesses that he'd been shot in Ukraine. I guessed they were the detainees who had been released. They were in good spirits and one of them, John Harding, even joked about being disappointed about how he looked in the paper.

"One of the men, Andrew Hill said they'd been very scared and didn't know what was going to happen to them - they'd feared the worst. I said I'd been afraid they might not have made it and he said they'd said they felt the same.

"They were all seated together on the BA flight in economy so I waited until we cleared Saudi airspace and then I bought them some drinks and they got some hot food. It was the least I could do."

Speaking on video during the flight, Mr Aslin introduced himself as having been on “death row.” In the row behind, dad-of-four, Andrew Hill, who had previously served in the Lancaster regiment of the British army, had been detained in the Russian-occupied Mykolayiv region, and he too had been placed on death row. He is still nursing a wounded arm which is encased in metal having been shot.

Aidan Aslin speaking to Shaun Pinner on the flight to the UK after his ordeal which placed him on death row (Belfast Live)

In a separate video filmed by Mr Aslin, he said: "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.” He added: "Thanks to everybody."

A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic had sentenced Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner to death in July.

Both men had been seized by separatist militia whilst fighting the invasion in the stricken city of Mariupol. Mr Harding, along with Mr Hill and Mr Healy, went on trial last month in the city of Donetsk, Russian media reported. They 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. Ten others were released included citizens of Sweden, Croatia and Morocco, as well as two US military veterans, Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27. Another 200 Ukrainian prisoners were also swapped in exchange for 68 year-old oligarch and pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said it "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." The British aid volunteer died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Former POW Shaun Pinner on the flight from Saudi to London (Belfast Live)

Last night former Royal Anglian Regiment soldier Mr Pinner, 48, celebrated being at home with his family with steak and a glass of red wine. His mother Deborah, son, sister and step-dad were reunited with him at Heathrow Airport at 6.30am on Thursday, September 22.

Lyndon Price, his step-dad, said: "As you can imagine, it was very emotional. He wants a few days before he can talk. He has been through quite a lot. We are very, very happy that he is home. It is fantastic news. His son is here, my wife is here and so is his sister. We are all together. His wife is still in Ukraine. We are hoping to get her over."

At his home in Potton, Bedfordshire, Mr Price said: “It has been a difficult time for him. He was defending Mariupol and lost some of his really close colleagues. We are just pleased he is alive. We have been living on the edge for months with the death penalty hanging over him. What he has gone through is not for the faint-hearted."

Engineer Alec Pettet spoke to the released detainees on his overnight flight from Saudi to Heathrow (Alec Pettet)

Aiden Aslin, 28, at his family home in Balderton, Notts, said: “Me and my family want privacy after the traumatic experience.
“Please respect this and when I’m ready to talk to the media I will.”

Aiden's mum, Ang Wood said: "I'm just spending some time with my family as I'm still in a state of shock.”

A source close to the family of captured Dylan Healey, 22, who had been placed on death row, said he had returned home "fine and well". Dylan, from Huntingdon, Cambs, was captured by Russian forces along with fellow charity worker Paul Urey, 45.

Roman Abramovich, 55, was sanctioned by the UK government for his ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime, following Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine. It has since been claimed that his capital in Britain has either been sold or frozen following the war.

Born in 1966 in Saratov, Russia, the millionaire became a household name for his role as owner of Premier League club Chelsea. He was also well-known for his friendships with former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and current president, Vladimir Putin.


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