It would be cynical to view Saudi Arabia’s efforts to secure the release of international prisoners held by Russian proxies in Ukraine as an attempt to improve the country’s image after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, its affairs minister has said. foreign.
Adel al-Jubeir said on Friday that Riyadh first approached the British government in April, shortly after Aiden Aslin, a British citizen, and others were captured in Mariupol, and acted on grounds of compassion, in the hope of negotiating their release.
When asked if this was a rare opportunity to mend relations with the West, the minister replied: “I think that’s a very cynical view. What we saw, what the leaders of the kingdom saw, was an opportunity to achieve a humanitarian breakthrough to facilitate the return of these detainees to their families. And that’s the motivation. »
Saudi Arabia, which sought to adopt a softer stance on Russia after the outbreak of war, has previously said Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was involved in a major diplomatic effort that also appears to have involved former Chelsea football club owner and billionaire Roman. Abramovich.
One of the five released Britons, Shaun Pinner, recognized Abramovich on the plane taking them from Russia to Riyadh earlier this week and approached him to ask if he was the former owner of the football club, according to an article from the Sun.
Another of the released, John Harding, recounted the ensuing exchange between the two men. “He went up to him on the plane and asked him where he was from and Roman said ‘London’.
“Then Shaun said, ‘You really look like Roman Abramovich’ and he replied, ‘That’s because I’m him, sir.'” He couldn’t believe it.
Five Britons were among 10 people facing the death penalty by pro-Russian separatists who were unexpectedly released earlier this week. They were all accused of having fought as mercenaries on behalf of Ukraine and were tried in violation of the Geneva conventions relating to prisoners of war.
Aiden Aslin, 28, returned to his family home near Newark on Thursday, as did the other Britons, including Pinner, with whom he was tried in June. Aslin, Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, also released this week, had been sentenced to death in an internationally condemned judgment.
Abramovich did not confirm the reports but the billionaire, who was forced to sell Chelsea after Russia invaded Ukraine, had been involved in unsuccessful peace talks between the two sides in Istanbul in March. He is not on the US sanctions list, in part because Ukraine told Washington he was acting as a mediator.
Al-Jubeir said the mediation was “an initiative” led by Bin Salman since April. “We have learned about the issue of these foreign detainees and he has engaged with the UK and others and of course with Russia and Ukraine, to work towards ending their release,” the minister added. Foreign Affairs.
The Saudi minister said the agreement to exchange the 10 foreign nationals was linked to a separate and larger prisoner exchange agreement between Ukraine and Russia. “This exchange only took place when the 10 nationals arrived in Saudi territory and were verified, which allowed the other exchange to continue,” al-Jubeir said.
It implied that Ukraine wanted Russia to show good faith before releasing pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 other prisoners, in exchange for 200 soldiers and five commanders of the Azov Battalion which led the defense of Mariupol. . This agreement also involved the mediation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.