2 US veterans among 10 prisoners released by Russian separatists
Two American veterans and eight other prisoners held captive by Russian separatists in Ukraine were released this week in a prisoner exchange, officials said Wednesday.
US military veterans Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh, who both disappeared three months ago while fighting alongside Ukrainians against Russian forces, were among 10 prisoners released in an exchange brokered by Saudi Arabia.
The couple disappeared on June 9 in the Kharkiv region of north-eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. They traveled to Ukraine alone but had met during fighting in the war-torn country and quickly bonded over their common home state of Alabama.
Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, have been released to the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia, their families said in a joint statement.
“You are safely in the custody of the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia and will be returned to the States following medical screening and debriefing,” the statement said.
Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, said both men have spoken to their families and are in “fairly good shape,” according to an embassy official.
Drueke, who enlisted in the army after the September 11 attacks at age 19, believed he could help Ukrainian fighters with his military training and weapons knowledge, Shaw said. In mid-April, he traveled to the European country.
Huynh, who lives about 120 miles from Drueke, said he felt he had to do something to help Ukraine before going into the country.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was this gut feeling that I felt like I had to do something,” Huynh told his local newspaper, The Decatur Daily. “Two weeks into the war it just ate at me and it just felt wrong. I lost sleep. … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
Huynh told his fiancé he wanted a meal from McDonald’s and a Pepsi-Cola when he got home, Shaw said.
US officials thanked Saudi Arabia and Ukraine for their help in securing the men’s freedom.
“We look forward to reuniting our citizens with their families,” Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security Adviser, said in a tweet after thanking the leaders of both nations.
The Saudi government had to arrange the release because the US does not recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and does not maintain diplomatic relations with it.
The other 8 prisoners were from the UK, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia, according to the Saudi embassy.
Five of the prisoners are British nationals, the United Kingdom said. One of them, 28-year-old Aiden Aslin, had been sentenced to death by Russian separatists after being arrested in eastern Ukraine.
“Aiden’s return ends months of agonizing uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark, who suffered everyday from Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope,” tweeted British lawmaker Robert Jenrick. “Being reunited as a family, they can finally find peace.”
British Prime Minister Liz Truss also celebrated her release.
“Very welcome news that five British nationals being held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine will be safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,” she tweeted.
In addition to Aslin, another freshly freed prisoner had been sentenced to death.
21-year-old Moroccan Brahim Saadoun was arrested and charged with terrorism and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. He was sentenced to death in June after the court claimed he was a mercenary. His father said he enlisted in the regular Ukrainian army.
With postal wires