One of five Britons freed from captivity by Russia-backed forces has said former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich welcomed them out of Russia.
In an interview with The Sun, John Harding said Mr Abramovich identified himself as Shaun Pinner, while Mr Harding spoke to Mr Abramovich’s assistant who said the Russian had played a “key role” in his release.
It is understood Mr Harding was released on Wednesday with Mr Pinner, Aidan Eslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill landing in Britain on Thursday morning.
Mr Abramovich announced he would sell Chelsea on March 2 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The 55-year-old was then sanctioned by the UK government on March 10, which Downing Street claimed proved his ties to Vladimir Putin.
“Shaun had been talking to him about football for a long time and I was talking to his assistant,” Mr Harding told The Sun.
“He said Roman was instrumental in bringing us back. It’s too unusual to think he was involved — and I wouldn’t even be able to tell you who he was by looking at him.
“He is highly respected by Ukrainians and now by us too – he has done so much for us and we cannot 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.”
Mr Pinner’s family said he was “in good spirits” and “looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine” after his release.
A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sentenced Mr. Pinar and Mr. Eslin to death in July.
This has been a very sad time for Shawn and our family who now have such a happy resolution
They had both been living in Ukraine for several years and were serving with its regular forces when full-scale hostilities broke out.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Pinner’s family said: “We would like to thank everyone involved in Shaun’s release, in particular the Foreign Office, Liz Truss and her team, Boris Johnson and (the Ukrainian ) of President (Volodymyr) Zelensky.
“Shaun would also like to thank the Saudi government and Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud for their hospitality who also helped him negotiate his freedom.
“This is a very emotional time as you can expect and we are unable to fully discuss any details in his release at this time. This has been a very sad time for Shaun and our family who now have such joy. is the resolution. Shawn is in good spirits and still has his sense of humor intact. He’s looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.
“We are now enjoying some family time and would appreciate privacy at this time.”
A photograph released by the Foreign Office shows Mr Pinner with loved ones.
Three of the British nationals released by pro-Russian forces were hailed as defenders of “democracy and freedom” by their former commander in Ukraine.
Mr Harding, Mr Pinar and Mr Eslin 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 Mmulashvili told the PA news agency.
He is one of the best representatives of his country who came here to defend Ukraine and I give him my respect.
“They were in the Georgian Legion at about the same time… and they were perfect guys.
“It was very important for us to get those people out of slavery because I’ve been in slavery myself and I know what it’s like.”
Mr Mmulashvili singled out Mr Harding, a British Army veteran, for his contribution to the Legion, where he trained young volunteers as an instructor.
“He is one of the best representatives of his country who came here to defend Ukraine and I give him my respect,” he said.
The non-profit organization Presidium Network, which has supported Mr Haley’s family, told the PA that all five had landed safely in the UK and had been reunited with their families.
Dominic Byrne, co-founder of the organization, said: “We don’t know exactly if they’ve all returned to their homes yet, but we do know they are with families at the moment.”
The State Department has not commented on the men’s whereabouts.
Mr Aslin’s release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick.
The first thing I needed to do was hug her and make sure it was real. It doesn’t even feel real anymore
His mother, Angela Wood, told the BBC that at times she thought she “wouldn’t see him alive again”.
“His release happened overnight, I’m still in shock,” he said.
“The first thing I needed to do was give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It doesn’t even feel real anymore. “
Ms Wood also said Russian separatists who were holding Mr Esslin, who she described as “torture” for the family, would contact her asking for money.
A video emerged of the two men inside an airliner late on Wednesday, with Mr Esslin introducing himself and Mr Pinner, saying: “We want to let everyone know that we are now out of the danger zone. And we are keeping ourselves on track. The way home to our families.
Mr Pinner interjected, “By the skin of our teeth”, as Mr Eslin added: “We want everyone to know the good news and so on, so thanks to everyone who’s been supporting us and what not, So it’s really appreciated.”
Mr Pinner added: “Thanks to everyone.”
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who was visiting New York for the UN summit, tweeted: “Very welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned. Yes, months of uncertainty and suffering have ended for them and their families. “