The Kremlin’s chief spokesman told NBC News on Monday that two US fighters missing in Ukraine, Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were “soldiers of fortune” and had been arrested. The spokesperson also claimed that the two men were not protected by the Geneva Conventions as prisoners of war.
In the Kremlin’s first comments on the two men, spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said they had been involved in shelling and firing on Russian forces and should be “held accountable for the crimes they have committed”. He said they were being held while their case was investigated.
The US State Department issued a statement urging Moscow and authorities in Russian-occupied Ukraine to respect international law. “We call on the Russian government – as well as its proxies – to uphold their international obligations in the treatment of any individual, including those captured fighting in Ukraine,” the State Department press office statement said.
The men’s families reported them missing last week, and on Saturday the State Department described them as “allegedly captured by Russian military forces in Ukraine.” Both are US military veterans who volunteered to fight in Ukraine.
The two were fighting with a small group of foreign soldiers and were missing in action when their platoon came under heavy fire in a village near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, about 40 km from the Russian border.
Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war must be treated humanely and are protected from prosecution for taking part in hostilities. The only exception is for war crimes prosecutions.
But Mr Peskov said the men were not part of the Ukrainian army and therefore not entitled to the Geneva Convention protections given to combatants. Mr. Drueke is a former US Army staff sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, while Mr. Huynh is a former Marine.
The case of the two men underscored the perils faced by thousands of foreign volunteers who went to fight in Ukraine. Earlier this month, a court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine sentenced three foreign fighters to death, accusing the men, British and Moroccan, of being mercenaries who intended to carry out attacks. terrorist acts. Legal experts said the trial and draconian sentences appeared calculated as a warning to foreign volunteers not to take up arms against Russia.
The State Department said Saturday it had reviewed photos and videos online that appeared to show the two Americans, though it declined to comment on the authenticity of the images or the men’s conditions.
U.S. officials were in contact with the men’s families, Ukrainian authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross, a State Department spokesperson said.
On Friday, short videos purporting to show the two men were posted on YouTube in which they each said in Russian: “I am against the war”. It is not known when the videos were recorded or by whom.
Then Russian state broadcaster RT said it interviewed the men. The broadcaster reported that the two men had surrendered to Russian troops and were in a detention center controlled by Russian-allied forces.