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Liz Truss thanks Saudi crown prince for helping to secure release of British POWs from Ukraine | Politics News

Liz Truss has thanked the crown prince of Saudi Arabia for his help securing the release of five Britons captured by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, in their first call since she became prime minister.

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and John Harding have been identified as three of the Brits freed “by the skin of their teeth” in a surprise prison swap last week.

The Foreign Office had been working for months to support those detained, but it is believed the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was crucial in negotiating the release.

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Health minister Robert Jenrick, the MP in Mr Aslin’s constituency, told Sky News the royal had been asked to help because not only was Saudi Arabia “an ally and partner of the UK” but also because it is a country, through its role in OPEC (the group of oil-producing nations), that has an ongoing relationship with Russia.

In a statement about their call, Downing Street said: “The prime minister thanked the crown prince for his personal role in securing the release of five British detainees held by Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine last week, to the great relief of their families.”

They discussed their “strategic partnership” on defence and energy security, while Ms Truss also offered the UK’s “continued encouragement for progress in Saudi Arabia’s domestic reforms”, according to No 10.

Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the UK, but the relationship is controversial because of its record on human rights.

In June, when she was foreign secretary, Ms Truss offered a robust defence of British ties to the Gulf state, stressing that the world is not “perfect”.

She was speaking following the launch of talks on a fresh trade deal between the UK and six Gulf nations.

Aiden Aslin
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Shaun Pinner (centre) and Aiden Aslin (right). John Harding has his thumb up. Pic: Cossackgundi

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Downing Street said the prime minister reiterated her focus on agreeing a strong UK-GCC trade deal in their call on Monday afternoon.

A spokesperson added: “They discussed the strategic partnership between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia across a range of issues, including cooperation on defence and energy security.

“The leaders welcomed progress in ending the conflict in Yemen and agreed on the importance of continuing political dialogue to extend the truce.”

Meanwhile, the Saudi crown prince also offered his “sincere condolences” on the death of the Queen.

“The leaders looked forward to continuing to grow the strong relationship fostered during her late Majesty’s reign”, the spokesperson said.

British prisoner of war John Harding used as a ‘punching bag’ over days of torture in Ukraine | World News

A freed British prisoner of war who was held by Russian-backed separatists has told Sky News how he was tortured over several days.

John Harding said he was used as a “punching bag” by the guards in a holding facility in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.

The centre was run by the MGB, which he said was the equivalent of Russia’s FSB, formerly the KGB.

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He said he was held there for about nine days in a small cell about 4ft by 6ft, between being taken to the prosecutor’s office for questioning.

Mr Harding was one of five Britons freed in recent days in a prisoner swap with Russia. He is now back in the UK after his release with the help of the Ukrainians and the Saudis.

Shaun Pinner (centre) and Aiden Aslin (right). John Harding has his thumb up
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Mr Harding, left, with fellow POWs Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on a plane after their release

Mr Harding had been in Ukraine teaching its soldiers how to use first aid kits.

When the Russians crossed the border in the February invasion, they were near his base and he ended up in the Azovstal steel complex, where he and his colleagues fled because it was a good defensive position with underground tunnels.

They were surrounded after the site was besieged by Russian forces and famously held out there for a number of weeks before surrendering in May due to running very low on ammunition.

He said he was originally taken to a prisoner of war camp for about four days before being transported to the holding facility where he suffered days of torture.

Mr Harding said he suffered a fractured sternum, damage to his coccyx, broken ribs and neurological damage to his hand in the holding centre in Donetsk.

John Harding pictured during a court hearing in Donetsk in August
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Mr Harding at a court hearing in Donetsk in August

He said he was beaten up about five to six times “for fun”.

“Every time we left for the prosecutor’s office we got beaten up.”

In the worst attack, which lasted about 30 minutes, he said he was handcuffed with his arms behind his back and was pushed to the floor.

He said at least four guards kicked him in the chest, ribs, kidneys and in the face.

“One man stood on my hips and jumped up and down,” he said.

John Harding pictured in a courtroom in Donetsk in August. Pic: AP
Image:
Pic: AP

He added: “I think I used to quite annoy the guards because I tend not to scream when I’m beaten and I think that annoyed them.”

Mr Harding admitted he feared for his life several times.

“I had a feeling… if they kicked you to death they wouldn’t be that bothered. I thought it was heading that way.

“If you are going to be killed best to get it over with. They enjoyed it, the tormentors.”

He said he was given “very little food and water” and not allowed any exercise during his time there.

The cell had no windows so he never knew what time of day it was.

Mr Harding said after about nine days in detention he was moved to a civilian prison where he was kept for months until his release.

He said the treatment in the jail was not as bad as that which he faced in the detention centre.

Ukraine war: UK programme to train ‘citizen soldiers’ is expanding | UK News

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia, Sky News has learnt.

The combat course is being extended in length to five weeks from three weeks, keeping more of the training in the UK, away from the threat of Russian missile strikes – a hazard for anyone learning how to become a soldier at sites inside Ukraine, it is understood.

Some 4,700 personnel have already been through the training at military bases in the north, southwest and southeast of England since it began in June, with commanders intending to continue the support for as long as Ukraine needs new troops to fight Russia’s invasion.

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia
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Pic: MoD

Military instructors from eight other countries, including New Zealand, Sweden and the Netherlands, have joined with their British counterparts to provide the expanded training mission.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said it demonstrated “our shared resolve to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace visits UK troops training Ukraine citizens to be soldiers. The UK is significantly expanding a training programme to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia. Pic: Ministry of Defence
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The defence secretary said meeting the Ukrainians learning to fight was ‘humbling’. Pic: MoD

In quotes released to Sky News by the Ministry of Defence, confirming the expanded programme, Mr Wallace said the training course had “developed rapidly, and we are now extending it to five weeks to provide the best possible preparation for Ukrainian soldiers who will soon be in active combat operations”.

He added: “Meeting those citizen soldiers and witnessing first-hand their courage and determination is a humbling experience.

More on Ministry Of Defence

“We must do everything we can to help them defend their homes against this illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes. We stand with Ukraine.”

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British troops take part in cold weather training with Swedish and Finnish armed forces

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia. Pic: Ministry of Defence
Image:
Pic: MoD

Mr Wallace has paid four visits to check up on the training, including most recently on Friday.

Advanced training

A defence source said this was an indication that while “many politicians have been distracted by a summer leadership competition”, the defence secretary “only cares about keeping Ukrainians in their fight for national survival”.

If, as expected, Liz Truss becomes prime minister, Mr Wallace is tipped to retain his job as defence secretary.

Other countries taking part in the training programme to help Ukraine comprise Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Lithuania.

The main course on offer is based on the UK’s basic infantry training. It includes weapons-handling, battlefield first aid, fieldcraft and patrol tactics.

The extra two weeks will allow for more advanced training, such as trench and urban warfare, vehicle-mounted operations, and battlefield exercises in simulated combat environments.

The training is being conducted by elements from the British Army’s 11 Security Force Assistance Brigade and the RAF Regiment, alongside international instructors.

Ukraine war: British volunteer medic killed | UK News

A British national has been killed while volunteering as a medic in Ukraine.

Craig Mackintosh’s sister Lorna said he had lost his life “in the line of duty”.

In a GoFundMe set up to bring his body home she revealed that he had been killed in Ukraine on 24 August.

“Please help us bring this war hero home,” Ms Mackintosh wrote.

“Our brother bravely volunteered to go to (Ukraine) as a medic to help save lives in this war torn country.

“In the line of duty, helping others he lost his life. This selfless man is currently stranded in a morgue in Ukraine and there is no help to get him home.”

She said it would cost around £4,000 to bring his body back to the UK.

“We have spoken to an international funeral provider and it’s going to cost around £4,000 to have him repatriated back to the UK.

“He gave his life to save others and he needs to come back home to have the service he deserves. A true hero’s service surrounded by his family and friends. Please, please help to bring our hero home.”

As of Wednesday evening, the GoFundMe had exceeded its target, raising £4,590.

An FCDO Spokesperson told the PA news agency: “We are supporting the family of a British man who has died in Ukraine and are in contact with the local authorities.”

Ukraine war: Three Britons plead not guilty to mercenary charges in Russian-backed separatist court | World News

Three Britons have pleaded not guilty to mercenary charges at a Russian-backed separatist court in Ukraine.

John Harding, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy are among a group of five European men on trial in a court administered by Kremlin-backed separatists in the city of Donetsk.

Mr Harding, Vjekoslav Prebeg, who is Croatian, and Mathias Gustafsson, a Swede, who were captured in and around the port city of Mariupol, could face a possible death sentence under the laws of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

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All five men pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenarism and “undergoing training to seize power by force”, Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported.

The next court hearing in their case is scheduled for October, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a statement by the separatists’ court.

Mr Healy, 22, who was in Ukraine as an aid worker, was seized at a checkpoint south of the city of Zaporizhzhia in April alongside fellow British national Paul Urey. He died in custody in July after being charged with committing “mercenary activities”. Mr Hill, a military volunteer, was also captured in April by Russian forces.

Mr Harding had been fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region since 2018 before he was captured.

Originally from Sunderland, he appealed for help from Boris Johnson last month after being told he could be handed a death sentence.

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John Harding is facing a death sentence if convicted

In June, the Donetsk authorities sentenced to death two Britons, Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, and Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim, accused of being mercenaries.

They were all captured by Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine and all three have appealed against their verdicts.

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Ukrainian social media has been speculating that the Kremlin may seek to use the foreign fighters to extract concessions from Ukraine or swap them for Russian prisoners.

Foreign governments have declined to negotiate with the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two Russian-backed entities that have controlled parts of east Ukraine’s Donbas region since 2014, citing its internationally recognised status as part of Ukraine.