Two U.S. military veterans held captive for months by Russian-backed separatists in northeastern Ukraine have been released along with eight other foreigners, part of a broader prisoner exchange between Moscow and Kyiv that was brokered with the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government in Riyadh and one of the American’s families said Wednesday.
Alexander J. Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, both of Alabama, were captured in June near the northeastern border city of Kharkiv. They are among the hundreds of Westerners who have traveled to Ukraine to take up arms against Russian forces. Drueke served previously in the U.S. Army while Huynh is a Marine Corps veteran.
The men’s release was startling development, its announcement coming hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered the mobilization of 300,000 military reservists to shore up the Kremlin’s staggering battlefield losses over the last seven months.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia called the Americans’ families on Wednesday morning, said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt. Drueke’s mother, Lois Drueke, spoke to him for about 10 minutes, and said her son appeared to be in good condition, Shaw said, noting that Dreuke and Huynh were expected to receive medical screenings later in the day.
“He sounded clearheaded, with clear speech,” Shaw said. “He sounded like himself.”
Shaw expressed amazement at how the men’s release had come about, even as they awaited additional details.
“I never dreamed it was a possibility that the Saudi government would be able to do something like this,” she said. “But any port in a storm.”
The Saudi government said in a statement that the other prisoners released were from Britain, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia. It was not immediately clear who was released in exchange for them.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that it was “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.”
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.
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) September 21, 2022
Truss thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his efforts to release the prisoners, and added that Russia “must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends.”
At least half a dozen U.S. citizens are believed to have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began in February. Another American citizen, retired Marine Corps officer Grady Kurpasi, was reported missing in southern Ukraine in late April. He was not among the prisoners released Wednesday, said George Heath, a friend speaking on behalf of Kurpasi’s family.
Kurpasi was last seen near the southern city of Mykolaiv, when he went to investigate the source of incoming fire. A short time later, Willy Cancel, another Marine Corps veteran in the same group, was fatally wounded, becoming the first known American veteran to die in combat in Ukraine.
The Drueke and Huynh families have had sporadic contact with their loved ones since their capture, but the calls often seemed tense and scripted, Shaw said in an earlier interview. One of the biggest challenges in captivity, Drueke said in audio provided to The Post in July, was “finding little things to think about, just, you know, [to] fill in the boredom.”
Alex Horton, Karen DeYoung and Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.