Updated Sep 24, 2022 - World

Two U.S. veterans captured by Russian-backed forces are back on American soil

Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of a military vehicle in Izium on Sept. 19.
Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of a military vehicle in Izium on Sept. 19. Photo: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Two U.S. veterans who were among over 200 prisoners of war transferred through an exchange between Russia and Ukraine are back on U.S. soil, CNN reports.

The latest: Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, both from Alabama, arrived in New York City on Friday afternoon. Their families said they appear to be in good health.

  • "Alex told me emphatically no, no regret," Drueke's aunt Dianna Brown Shaw told CNN. "They really want people to understand that Ukraine needs our support."
  • The Kremlin previously said in June it would not rule out the death penalty for Drueke and Huynh, who volunteered to fight with Ukraine's military but were captured in Kharkiv Oblast in June and held by the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR).

205 Ukrainians and 10 foreigner volunteers were freed in total in exchange for 55 Russian soldiers and Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician who was captured while attempting to flee the country in April, Andriy Yermak, head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's office, said on social media.

  • Among the freed Ukrainians were soldiers and commanders who endured a months-long defense of a steel plant in the now-destroyed port city of Mariupol earlier in the war, according to Yermak.
  • "We are thrilled to announce that Alex and Andy are free," Shaw said Wednesday in a statement posted on social media.
  • "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," Brown Shaw added in her statement.

What they're saying: "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," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

  • "We once again reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials."
  • The Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mediated the exchange, which included prisoners from the United Kingdom, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia.
  • It did not specify what the self-proclaimed DPR or the Luhansk People's Republic or Russia received from the exchange.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Liz Truss tweeted on Wednesday that five British nationals were released, "ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families."

  • "I thank [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] for his efforts to secure the release of detainees, and Saudi Arabia for their assistance," Truss added.
  • The DPR also sought the death penalty against three foreign volunteers — two British men and one Moroccan man — in June.
  • Aiden Aslin, one of the British nationals sentenced to death by the DPR, was included in the exchange Wednesday, Robert Jenrick, a member of the British Parliament, said on social media.

The big picture: Drueke and Huynh were among an unknown number of Americans who have volunteered to help thwart Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • At least two Americans have been killed while fighting in Ukraine, though the exact number is currently unknown.
  • Earlier Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "partial mobilization" of reservists for the invasion, sparking protests in dozens of Russian cities.

Go deeper: Over 1,300 Russians detained in protests against partial military mobilization

Editor's note: This story was updated with statements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Robert Jenrick, a member of the British Parliament.

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