Former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich is said to have played a ‘key part’ in the release of five British prisoners.
John Harding was set free from Russian captivity on Wednesday alongside Shaun Pinner, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill.
The group landed in Britain in the early hours of Thursday morning.
In an interview with The Sun, Mr Harding said the former Chelsea boss introduced himself to Mr Pinner.
Mr Abramovich’s assistant then said the Russian had played a ‘key part’ in their release.
The 55-year-old announced he would sell Chelsea on March 2, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He was then sanctioned by the UK Government on March 10, with Downing Street claiming to have proven his links to Vladimir Putin.
‘Shaun was chatting away to him about football for a long time and I was speaking to his assistant,’ Mr Harding told The Sun.
‘She said Roman had played a key part in getting us back. It’s quite extraordinary to think he was involved – and I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you who he was by looking at him.
‘He’s well respected by Ukrainians and massively by us now, too – he’s done a hell of a lot for us and we couldn’t thank him enough.
‘He was a sound bloke, a really lovely guy. He’s a legend – we absolutely love him and I’m so grateful for his efforts.’
Yesterday, Mr Pinner’s family said he was ‘in good spirits’ and ‘is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine’ following his release.
A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic had sentenced Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin to death in July.
They had both lived in Ukraine for a number of years and were serving with its regular forces when the full-scale war broke out.
In a statement released by the Foreign Office, Mr Pinner’s family said: ‘We would like to thank everybody involved in Shaun’s release, especially all at the Foreign Office, Liz Truss and her team, Boris Johnson and (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelensky.
‘Shaun would also like to thank the hospitality of the Saudi Government and Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud who also assisted in the negotiations for his freedom.
‘It’s a very emotional time as you can expect and we are unable to currently discuss so early in his release any details fully. It’s been a harrowing time for Shaun and our family which has now had such a happy resolution.’
Three of the British nationals freed by pro-Russian forces were hailed as defenders of ‘democracy and freedom’ by their former commander in Ukraine.
Mr Harding, Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin are believed to have served in the Georgian Legion, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer unit.
The mother of Mr Aslin, whose release was confirmed by his local MP Robert Jenrick, told the BBC she had feared she would ‘never see him alive again’.
‘His release happened overnight, I’m still in shock,’ said Angela Wood.
‘The first thing I needed to do was to give him a big hug and make sure it was real. It still doesn’t feel real now.’
A video emerged late on Wednesday of the two men sitting inside a plane, in which Mr Aslin introduced himself and Mr Pinner, adding: ‘We just want to let everyone know that we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families.’
Mr Pinner interjected, saying ‘by the skin of our teeth’, as Mr Aslin continued: ‘We just want everyone to know the good news etc, so thanks to everyone that’s been supporting us and what not, so it’s really muchly appreciated.’
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who was visiting New York for a UN summit, tweeted: ‘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.’
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