2 US veterans are released by Russian separatists in prisoner exchange: NPR

US military veterans Andy Huynh, left, and Alexander Drueke. The two veterans, who went missing while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces on 9 June, were released after about three months in captivity, relatives said on Wednesday 21 September.

Jeronimo Nisa / The Decatur Daily, left; and Lois “Bunny” Drueke / Dianna Shaw / AP


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Jeronimo Nisa / The Decatur Daily, left; and Lois “Bunny” Drueke / Dianna Shaw / AP

US military veterans Andy Huynh, left, and Alexander Drueke. The two veterans, who went missing while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces on 9 June, were released after about three months in captivity, relatives said on Wednesday 21 September.

Jeronimo Nisa / The Decatur Daily, left; and Lois “Bunny” Drueke / Dianna Shaw / AP

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Two US military veterans who went missing three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces were among 10 prisoners, including five British citizens, released by Russian-backed separatists as part of a Saudi Arabian-mediated prisoner exchange, they officials said Wednesday.

Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27, went missing in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border on 9 June. They traveled to Ukraine on their own and became friends because they are both from Alabama.

Their families announced their release in a joint statement from Dianna Shaw, an aunt of Drueke.

“They are safe in the custody of the US embassy in Saudi Arabia and after medical checks and debriefing they will return to the United States,” the statement read.

Shaw said both men have spoken to relatives and are “in good condition,” according to a US embassy official.

President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan welcomed the release and thanked the governments of Ukraine and Saudi Arabia for their work to ensure the freedom of the detainees. “We look forward to our citizens reuniting with their families,” he said in a tweet.

In a subsequent statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States “appreciates Ukraine, including all POWs, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations” and thanked Saudi government partners for ensuring the release of 10 prisoners, including two Americans.

The Saudi embassy released a statement saying it helped secure the release of 10 prisoners from Morocco, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Croatia. Shaw confirmed that Drueke and Huynh were part of the group.

The UK said five British citizens were released and lawmaker Robert Jenrick said one of them was Aiden Aslin, 28, who had been sentenced to death after being captured in eastern Ukraine.

“Aiden’s return puts an end to months of agonizing uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark, who suffered every day from Aiden’s fictional trial but never lost hope. As they are united as a family again, they can finally be at peace, “tweeted Jenrick.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced the news on social media.

“Extremely welcome news that five British citizens detained by Russian-backed delegates in eastern Ukraine will be safely repatriated, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,” he tweeted.

Moroccan media reported that among the released prisoners was Brahim Saadoun, 21, sentenced to death in June after being accused of terrorism and attempting to overturn the constitutional order. Captured by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, the court alleging him was a mercenary, while Saadoun’s father said he had enlisted in the regular Ukrainian army.

Russian state television had previously claimed that Drueke and Huynh were detained by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The United States does not recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and has no diplomatic relations with it, making it necessary for others to lead efforts to secure the men’s release.

Drueke joined the army at the age of 19 following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and believed he could help Ukrainian fighters with his training and experience with weapons, Shaw previously said. Left print in mid-April.

Druke’s mother received a call from Saudi Arabia on Wednesday morning and an embassy employee handed the phone to the man, Shaw said.

“He picked up the phone and said, ‘Hi Mom, he’s your favorite baby,'” she said.

Huynh moved to Northern Alabama two years ago from his native California and lives approximately 120 miles (193 kilometers) from Drueke. Before leaving for Europe, Huynh told his local newspaper, The Decatur Daily, that he couldn’t stop thinking about the invasion of Russia.

“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that good feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Huynh told the newspaper. “Two weeks after the war started, it kept devouring me inside and I just felt wrong. I was losing sleep. … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”

Huynh told her boyfriend she wants a McDonald’s meal and a Pepsi-Cola when she gets home, Shaw said.

The two men bonded in their home state and were together when their unit was hit by heavy fire. Relatives spoke on the phone several times with Drueke while the two were detained.