Geronimo Niss/The Decatur Daily, left; and Lois “Bunny” Druke/Diana Shaw/AP
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Two U.S. military veterans who disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia alongside Ukrainian forces were among 10 prisoners, including five British citizens, freed by Russian-backed separatists in a prisoner swap brokered by Saudi Arabia, the Wednesday officials.
Alex Drucke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27, went missing in Kharkiv Oblast in northeastern Ukraine near the border with Russia on June 9. They came to Ukraine on their own and became friends because they are both from Alabama.
Their families announced their release in a joint statement by Diane Shaw, Druke’s aunt.
“They are safely in the custody of the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia and will return to the states after a medical examination and debriefing,” the statement said.
Shaw said both men have spoken with relatives and are in “pretty good shape,” according to a U.S. Embassy official.
President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, welcomed the release and thanked the governments of Ukraine and Saudi Arabia for their work to secure the detainees’ freedom. “We look forward to seeing our citizens reunited with their families,” he tweeted.
In a later statement, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the United States was “grateful that Ukraine included all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations” and thanked its Saudi Arabian government partners for the release of 10 prisoners, including two Americans.
The Saudi embassy released a statement saying it had helped free 10 prisoners from Morocco, the United States, Great Britain, Sweden and Croatia. Shaw confirmed that Druke and Huynh were part of the group.
The United Kingdom said five British nationals had been freed, and lawmaker Robert Jerrick said one of them was Aiden Aslin, 28, who was sentenced to death after being captured in eastern Ukraine.
“Aiden’s return ends months of agonizing uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark, who suffered daily from Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope. As they are reunited as a family, they can finally be in the world,” Jerrick tweeted. .
British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced this on social networks.
“Very good news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed agents in eastern Ukraine have returned safely, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,” she tweeted.
Moroccan media reported that among the freed prisoners was 21-year-old Brahim Saadoun, who was sentenced to death in June on charges of terrorism and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. Captured by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, the court claimed he was a mercenary, while Saadoun’s father said he had enlisted in Ukraine’s regular army.
Russian state television previously reported that Druke and Huynh were being held by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The US does not recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and has no diplomatic relations with them, forcing others to lead efforts to free these people.
Druke joined the Army at age 19 after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and he believed he could help Ukrainian fighters because of his training and experience with weapons, Shaw said earlier. Druke left in mid-April.
Druk’s mother received a call from Saudi Arabia Wednesday morning, and an embassy official handed the phone to the person, Shaw said.
“He called and said, ‘Hi mom, this is your favorite baby,'” she said.
Huynh moved to north Alabama two years ago from his native California and lives about 120 miles (193 kilometers) from Druke. Before leaving for Europe, Huynh told a local newspaper, The Decatur Daily, that he couldn’t stop thinking about invading Russia.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but I felt like I had to do something,” Huynh told the newspaper. “Two weeks after the war started, it continued to eat me up from the inside, and it was just bad. I was losing sleep… All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
Huynh told his fiance he wanted a McDonald’s and a Pepsi when he got home, Shaw said.
The two men had teamed up in their home state and were together when their unit came under heavy fire. Relatives spoke to Druke several times on the phone while the two were being held in custody.