Ten foreign fighters, including two Americans who joined the war effort in Ukraine before they were captured and held by Russian forces, were released Wednesday as part of an exchange of prisoners of war between Russia and Ukraine.
The American veterans, Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were captured by Russian forces in June and held by its proxies in the contested Donbas region that remains at the center of the war.
“We are thrilled to announce that Alex and Andy are free," Dianna Shaw and Bunny Drueke, the aunt and mom of Alexander Drueke, said in a 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."
Drueke's family said that they deeply appreciated the prayers and support of the public. They also emphasized their gratitude to Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., the U.S. embassies in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and the efforts of the State Department.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government had successfully negotiated the release of the foreign fighters and transferred them to Saudi Arabia, where they were "facilitating procedures for their safe return home."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken extended thanks to Saudi Arabia for leading the effort.
"The United States welcomes the negotiated prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia, which includes two U.S. citizens captured while serving in Ukraine’s military," Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. "The United States is appreciative of Ukraine including all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations, and we look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families."
The 10 foreign fighters are five British fighters, two Americans, and one Moroccan, Swede and Croatian, according to the Saudi Ministry of Media.
U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that she was elated to hear that the British nationals had been released.
"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.
Robert Jenrick, a member of British Parliament, said his constituent, Aiden Aslin, was among those released.
Alongside British citizen Shaun Pinner and Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, Aslin was sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in June after he was captured by Russian forces.
"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," Jenrick wrote on Twitter. "As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace."
Numerous non-Ukrainians have traveled to the country in hopes of aiding its defenders against the Russian invasion. The Armed Forces of Ukraine had gone so far as to create a dedicated Foreign Legion to organize the sudden flood of former soldiers who traveled to Ukraine to join the fight.
Drueke and Huynh, both from Alabama, went missing in June near Kharkiv, long before a successful counteroffensive freed the northeastern city from Russian occupation. They are believed to be the first Americans to be captured during the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Their relatives said that the two were inspired to join the war effort after watching on TV the violence committed in the early days of the invasion.
In a video released on Russian television shortly after NBC News had confirmed their captivity by the Kremlin-backed separatists in the Donbas, Drueke promised his mother he would be home as soon as possible. He mentioned his dog, a mastiff called Diesel, before he ended the video message with a wink.
“Mom, I just want to let you know that I’m alive and I hope to be back home as soon as I can be," he said at the time. "So, love Diesel for me. Love you.”