US veterans Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh in a Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap Friday

Two U.S. veterans held for months by Russian-backed separatists in northeastern Ukraine and eight other foreigners have been freed as part of a wider prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv that took place after the Saudi crown prince It was brokered with the involvement of the government of Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, the family of an American said Wednesday.

Alexander J. Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh of Alabama were arrested in June near the northeastern border city of Kharkiv. They were among hundreds of Westerners who went to Ukraine to take up arms against Russian troops. Drueke previously served in the U.S. Army, and Huynh is a Marine Corps veteran.

The man’s release is a stunning development, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists to support the Kremlin’s staggering battlefield losses over the past seven months. While it’s unclear who was released in exchange for Drueke and Hyunh, their release from captivity is sure to increase pressure on the Biden administration to secure the release of two Americans held in Russia, namely WNBA star Britney Spears. Greener and Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan.

Drucker’s aunt, Diana Shaw, said officials at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia called the Americans’ families on Wednesday morning. Drueke’s mother, Lois Drueke, spoke with him for about 10 minutes and said her son appeared to be doing well, Shaw said, noting that Drueke and Huynh are expected to undergo medical examinations later in the day.

“He sounded clear-headed and spoke clearly,” Xiao said. “He sounds like himself.”

Xiao expressed surprise at how the men were released, although they are still waiting for more details.

“I never dreamed it was possible for the Saudi government to do something like this,” she said. “But any port in the storm.”

The other released prisoners were from Britain, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia, the Saudi government said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia believes it and Mohammed personally arranged the release, but Riyadh’s role remains unclear. But relations between Saudi Arabia and Moscow have improved in recent months, although relations with Washington continue to come under pressure.

Much of the U.S.-Saudi relationship revolves around human rights, and Congress has no problem with the way Mohammed, or MBS, who is known to be the de facto leader of the country under his aging father, King Salman, is managed. oppositional attitude. While the crown prince has said his goal is to modernize the country, repeated attacks on women’s rights have damaged his reputation here – already low after Saudi agents killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Based on a U.S. intelligence assessment, MBS approved the operation.

President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July, seeking help to ease high oil prices and promote unity among the Persian Gulf nations against Iran, appeared to be making little progress toward U.S. goals. At the same time, Saudi-Russian ties are deepening, including a recent deal through the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower output targets and Saudi investments in Russian energy companies in defiance of U.S. and European sanctions.

A Biden administration spokesman said they were waiting for Ukraine to make those announcements before commenting.

“Very welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are returning safely, ending months of uncertainty about their numbers and their families,” Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet. Sex and pain.”

Truss thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his efforts to free the prisoners, adding that Russia “must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political purposes”.

At least six U.S. citizens are believed to have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began in February. Another U.S. citizen, retired Marine Corps officer Grady Kulpathi, was reported missing in southern Ukraine in late April. George Heath, a friend who spoke on behalf of Kulpathi’s family, said he was not among the prisoners released on Wednesday.

Kurpasi was last seen near the southern city of Mykolaiv when he went to investigate the source of the fire. Soon after, another Marine veteran from the same group, Willie Kansell, was seriously wounded, becoming the first known U.S. veteran to be killed in combat in Ukraine.

Shaw said in an earlier interview that Drucker and the Huang family had had sporadic contact with their loved ones since their arrest, but the calls tended to appear tense and organized. One of the biggest challenges in captivity, Drueke said in audio provided to The Washington Post in July, is “finding little things to think about, just, you know, [to] fill boredom. “

For months, the U.S. government has strongly warned Americans not to travel to Ukraine or Russia.

Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian court on espionage charges related to what he and his family say are false. Griner, a Russian hero since February, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to drug charges.

The Biden administration believes the two were wrongfully detained and turned their cases over to the U.S. government’s top hostage negotiator.

Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.

Ukraine war: what you need to know

Newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of the military in his Sept. 9 national address. On the 21st, the move was characterized as an attempt to defend Russia’s sovereignty against the West, which was trying to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow us here for live updates.

Fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent days has forced Russia into a massive retreat in the northeastern region of Kharkiv as troops fled the cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned vast quantities of military equipment.

Merger referendum: The staged referendum, which is illegal under international law, will begin on September 1. According to the Russian news agency, from the 23rd to the 27th local time, the separate regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The Moscow-appointed government will start another staged referendum in Kherson on Friday.

photo: Photographers for The Washington Post have been on the ground since the war began — some of their most influential work.

How you can help: Here’s how Americans can help support the people of Ukraine, and people around the world have been giving.

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