Revealed: Roman Abramovich ‘met freed British POWs on luxury private jet from Russia to Saudi Arabia and gave them iPhones so they could call their families as they ate steak and tiramisu after six months of hell at hands of Putin’s troops’
Former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich met five British prisoners of war who were freed after six months at the hands of Putin’s forces on a luxury private jet from Russia to Saudi Arabia – and even gave them iPhones so they could call their families, it emerged last night.
The five hostages made an emotional return to UK and ate steak, canapes and tiramisu with the Russian oligarch, according to reports.
After months of imprisonment, torture and fear of execution, Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and John Harding were finally reunited with their loved ones.
Mr Harding, who appeared exhausted but elated as they arrived in the UK, told the Sun: ‘[Abramovich] was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend — we absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.’
The father-of-two also claimed the Russian billionaire, 55, tried to make the former captives comfortable and they joked to Abramovich – who said he would sell Chelsea on March 2, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that Mr Pinner is a West Ham fan who chatted to him about football.
The captives had spent the previous two days in transit, first being driven bound and blindfolded from eastern Ukraine to an unknown destination in Russia. They were then flown to Saudi Arabia where they received medical attention and were met by British consular officials before a British Airways flight brought them home, where their delighted relatives were waiting.
John Harding, Shaun Pinner (centre) and Aiden Aslin were pictured smiling as they flew on a plane from Russia to Saudi Arabia after being freed today
Roman Abramovich (right) met British POWs who faced the threat of a Russian firing squad in Ukraine on a luxury private jet from Russia to Saudi Arabia and gave them iPhones so they could call their families, it’s been reported this evening. Mr Aslin (left) arrived at his mother’s house in Newark, Nottinghamshire, around 2pm. The former care worker had spent five months behind bars, during which time he was stabbed by prison guards and endured mock executions
Before his capture, Mr Aslin frequently posted on Instagram from the frontline, using the profile ‘cossackgundi’. The account was run by a friend and remained active while he was imprisoned in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
Mr Harding added: ‘I didn’t even notice but Shaun said it looked like him. He went over to him on the plane and asked where he was from and Roman said ‘London’.
‘Then Shaun said, ‘You really look like Roman Abramovich’ and he replied, ‘That’s because I am him, sir’. He couldn’t believe it. I joked that Shaun is a West Ham fan and we all laughed.’
Abramovich, who is believed to have helped aid the release, talked football while they ate on the flight from Russia to Riyadh. The 55-year-old was sanctioned by the UK Government on March 10, with Downing Street claiming that it had proven his links to Vladimir Putin.
Mr Harding also claimed he spoke to the Russian oligarch’s assistant who said ‘played a key part in getting’ the Brits back.
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.’
Paul Urey (pictured), 45, from Warrington, died in detention earlier this year amid concerns he had been tortured by Russian separatists
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.
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.’
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.
Mr Aslin arrived at his mother’s house in Newark, Nottinghamshire, around 2pm. The former care worker had spent five months behind bars, during which time he was stabbed by prison guards and endured mock executions.
He told reporters: ‘I have been through a traumatic experience and I just want to get into my house. I also want to thank everyone who helped secure our release, especially president [Volodymyr] Zelensky and the Saudis.’
Mr Aslin was accompanied by his Ukrainian fiancée Diana and his brother Nathan.
His mother Angela Wood said: ‘We are so relieved to have Aiden home. I have not slept all night. Aiden needs time to recover. We have all had a really long day.’
Mr Aslin’s grandmother Pamela Hall added: ‘I haven’t slept for 24 hours. This is amazing news. We’re so happy.’
Shaun Pinner (left) and Aiden Aslin (right), who had been serving in the Ukrainian marines, were captured by Putin’s troops in the city of Mariupol in April. The pair have both now been released
The list of prisoners released includes five British nationals, two Americans, one Swede, one Croat and one Moroccan. Pinner is pictured in the orange shirt with Aslin on his left after landing in Riyadh
Pinner (right) and Aslin (left) were sentenced to death, along with Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (centre) in June this year by a pro-Russian separatist court
Aslin (pictured) seemed in good spirits as he was checked over by medics after his release from detention earlier today
Posts on social media by Mr Aslin’s friends yesterday suggested he had been stabbed and beaten while in captivity. His face had appeared swollen and bruised in video recordings of his interrogation by Russian forces.
The hostages also suffered psychological torture. They were told, ‘say goodbye to your families, you’re going to be killed’.
Before his capture, Mr Aslin frequently posted on Instagram from the frontline, using the profile ‘cossackgundi’. The account was run by a friend and remained active while he was imprisoned in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Last night a post on the account read: ‘I had my first phone call with Aiden in about five months this afternoon.
‘He sounds amazing, and is full of energy. What he went through was worse than what I thought. He lived up to his favourite Winston Churchill quote, ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’. It is a new day and a very good one. Aiden is free! Our boys are free! Ukraine and her people will always be free! Thank you everyone for your support, from Aiden and me.’
Mr Aslin’s close friend, and comrade in a Ukrainian marine unit, Shaun Pinner, returned to his mother’s house in Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.
Aiden Aslin’s mum Ang Wood arrives home in Balderton, Newark, earlier today following her son’s return to Britain via Saudi Arabia
Britons Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy alongside Croatian Vjekoslav Prebeg during a court hearing in the Russian-held region of Donetsk last month
Mr Aslin spoke of his ‘traumatic experience’ as he was reunited with family back at home in Balderton, Nottinghamshire, this afternoon
Aiden Aslin (left) and Shaun Pinner (right) and Moroccan Saaudun Brahim (centre) pictured during a sentencing hearing in the so-called Supreme Court of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic
British national John Harding, who was captured by pro-Russian forces, sitting inside a dock at a court in Donetsk last month
Tired and smiling, ex-British Army soldier Mr Pinner (second from right) was finally reunited with his family back in the UK today following months of detention in Ukraine
His jubilant step-father Lyndon Price said: ‘He has just got home. We picked him up from the airport this morning. All the families were there and, as you can, imagine it was very emotional.
Cassandra Pinner has spoken of her family’s delight that her brother Shaun has been released
‘Shaun has been through quite a lot. We are very, very happy he is home. It is fantastic news. We are all together, Shaun’s son, my wife and Shaun’s sister.
‘I have just given him a shave. I took all his beard off for him. He is well and looks fine. He is so pleased to be home.
‘What Shaun has gone through isn’t for the faint-hearted. He’s tired, he’s had a couple of beers. He’s going to have steak and red wine tonight and he is looking forward to that.’
According to their families, the hostages were unaware of the negotiations intended to secure their release. As part of the same deal, hundreds of captured Ukrainian and a handful of Russian troops were set free.
Saudi Arabia acted as an intermediary between the governments of each country.
Remarkably, Mr Pinner is not ruling out a return to Ukraine.
Mr Price added: ‘At some stage, I think he will want to go back. He loves Ukraine. He might want to get involved in humanitarian work. His wife is still there too, we are hoping to get her over here.’
Mr Pinner, a former soldier in the Royal Anglian Regiment, enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces in 2018. He was sent to the frontline in the eastern region, known as the Donbas, and was captured by Russian forces in the southern port city of Mariupol in April this year.
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.’
Prime Minister Ms 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.’