Two American veterans and eight other prisoners held captive by Russian separatists in Ukraine were released this week as part of a prisoner exchange, officials announced Wednesday.
US military veterans Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh, who both disappeared three months ago while fighting Russian forces alongside Ukrainians, were among the 10 prisoners freed in an exchange negotiated by Saudi Arabia.
The pair went missing in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border on June 9. They traveled to Ukraine on their own, but had met while fighting in the war-torn country and quickly bonded over their shared home state of Alabama.
Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, were released to the US embassy in Saudi Arabia, their families said in a joint statement.
“They are safely in the custody of the US embassy in Saudi Arabia and after medical checks and debriefing they will return to the states,” the statement said.
Drueke’s aunt Dianna Shaw said both men have spoken with their families and are in “pretty good shape,” according to an official at the embassy.
Drueke, who joined the Army at age 19 following the 9/11 attacks, believed he could help Ukrainian fighters with his military training and weapon expertise, Shaw said. He left for the European country in mid-April.
Huynh, who lives about 120 miles from Drueke, said he felt like he needed to do something to help Ukraine before leaving for the country.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that gut feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Huynh told his local paper The Decatur Daily. “Two weeks after the war began, it kept eating me up inside and it just felt wrong. I was losing sleep. … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
Huynh told his fiance he wants a meal from McDonald’s and a Pepsi-Cola when he returns home, Shaw said.
US officials thanked Saudi Arabia and Ukraine for their help securing the men’s freedom.
“We look forward to our citizens being reunited with their families,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a tweet, after thanking both nations’ leaders.
The Saudi government was needed to arrange the prison release because the US doesn’t recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and has no diplomatic relations with them.
The other 8 prisoners came from the United Kingdom, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia, according to the Saudi embassy.
Five of the prisoners were British nationals, the United Kingdom said. One of them, 28-year-old Aiden Aslin, had been sentenced to death by Russian separatist forces after he was captured in eastern Ukraine.
“Aiden’s return brings to an end months of agonising uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark who suffered every day of Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope,” British lawmaker Robert Jenrick tweeted. “As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace.”
British Prime Minister Liz Truss celebrated their release as well.
“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,” she tweeted.
In addition to Aslin, another newly freed prisoner had been sentenced to death.
Moroccan national Brahim Saadoun, 21, was captured and accused of terrorism and trying to overturn constitutional order. He was sentenced in June to death after the court claimed he was a mercenary. His father said he had enlisted in Ukraine’s regular army.
With Post wires