Roman Abramovich ‘played key part’ in release of Aiden Aslin and prisoners of war in Russia

John Harding praised the former Chelsea owner as a ‘legend’ after he gave the men phones to call their families and flew with them to safety

Roman Abramovich gave the prisoners iPhones so they could call their families Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Roman Abramovich, the former owner of Chelsea Football Club, "played a key part" in securing the release of five British prisoners of the war in Ukraine.

The Russian, 55, welcomed John Harding, Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill onto a jet flying them from Russia to Saudi Arabia.

He gave each of the men iPhones so that they could call their families and even talked football with the men while they ate steaks on the flight to Riyadh.

Mr Harding, a British Army veteran, said he had not recognised the Russian billionaire on the plane until Mr Pinner, a West Ham fan, pointed him out.

Mr Harding told The Sun: "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.”

‘We couldn't thank him enough’

The 59-year-old father-of-two, who was taken prisoner in May, said he sat next to Mr Abramovich's assistant on the flight who had explained how he helped secure their release.

"She said Roman had played a key part in getting us back," Mr Harding said. "It’s quite extraordinary to think he was involved — and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who he was by looking at him.

“He’s well respected by Ukrainians and massively by us now, too — he’s done a hell of a lot for us and we couldn’t 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 Abramovich has played the role of a go-between during the war, helping to organise peace talks in Istanbul in April.

In June, a Ukrainian official said he had helped negotiate humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol and other cities besieged by Moscow's army.

Harding 'one of the best representatives of Britain'

Mr Harding has been hailed as "one of the best representatives of his nation" by his Ukrainian commander.

John Harding, pictured during his imprisonment, has now been released as part of a prisoner swap deal Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Mamuka Mamulashvili, who led the Georgian Legion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer unit, made the comments about John Harding, who was one of five Britons released from captivity after Saudi Arabia brokered a secretive deal between Russia and Ukraine

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.

It is understood that John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill were set free alongside Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on Wednesday, landing in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Three of the five - 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," added Mr Mamulashvili.

"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."

Mr Aslin thanked Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and Saudi Arabia for ensuring their release.

Mr Aslin made no direct mention of the UK as he told reporters: “I want to thank Zelensky and the Saudis and everyone else involved.” 

On Wednesday, a video was published of Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner sitting on an airline, in which Mr Pinner said that their release was made "by the skin of our teeth”.

They also said they are “now out of the danger zone and we're on our way home to our families”. 

Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, confirmed that the release of the five Britons had been secured by working with Ukrainian authorities and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman. 

The non-profit organisation Presidium Network, which has been supporting the family of Mr Healy, said the men had landed "safely" in the UK and had been reunited with their families.

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."

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has not commented on the whereabouts of the ex-prisoners.

Mr Aslin's release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick, while multiple reports also indicated that Mr Pinner would also be returning home. 

Mr Jenrick said he was "deeply grateful" to the Ukrainian government, as well as the Saudi Crown Prince and the Foreign Office, for securing the release.

He added: "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.

"As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace."

Aiden Aslin arriving in Saudi Arabia after being released from captivity in Russia Credit: AFP via Getty Images

James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said the release "brings to an end many months of uncertainty and suffering, including the threat of the death penalty, for them and their families, at the hands of Russia".

"Tragically that was not the case for one of those detained and our thoughts remain with the family of Paul Urey,” he added.

The British aid volunteer died earlier this year while being detained by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Mr Cleverly added: "I would like to express my gratitude to President Zelensky and his team for their efforts to secure their release, and to HRH Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman and his team, for their assistance. 

"I continue to call on Russia to comply with international humanitarian law and not exploit prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political purposes."

In July, a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic had sentenced Mr Aslin to death alongside fellow British detainee Mr Pinner.

The Prime Minister, who is visiting New York for a United Nations summit where world leaders are discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tweeted: 

Ms Truss also said: 

She added: "Russia must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends.” 

Mr Harding, along with Mr Hill and Mr Healy, went on trial last month in the city of Donetsk, according to Russian media. 

The three, along with Swede Matthias Gustafsson and Croat Vjekoslav Prebeg, all pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenarism and "undergoing training to seize power by force".

The next court hearing in their case was scheduled for October, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a statement by the separatists' court.

Reports suggested the 10 prisoners included citizens of Sweden, Croatia and Morocco, as well as two US military veterans, Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27.

Mr Byrne added that he was "completely relieved and so pleased" that the five had returned to Britain, but added that he was "still thinking" of Paul Urey's family.

Allan Hogarth, from Amnesty International UK, called it a "huge relief" after a "sham judicial process apparently designed to exert diplomatic pressure on the UK".