Saudi Foreign Minister defends his role in securing prisoner exchange in Ukraine | Kingdom Saudi Arabia

Its foreign minister said it would be ironic to see 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.

Adel Al-Jubeir said on Friday that Riyadh first contacted the British government in April, shortly after the arrest of British citizen Eden Aslin and others in Mariupol, and they acted on humanitarian grounds, hoping to negotiate their release.

Asked if it was a rare opportunity to mend relations with the West, the minister said, “I think this is a very cynical look. What we saw, what the kingdom’s leadership saw, was an opportunity to achieve a humanitarian breakthrough to facilitate the return of these detainees to their families. That is the motive.”

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Saudi Arabia, which sought a softer stance toward Russia after the outbreak of the war, had earlier said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in a major diplomatic effort that also appears to have involved former Chelsea football club owner and billionaire Roman. Abramovich.

Sean Boehner, one of the five Britons released, recognized Abramovich on the plane taking them from Russia to Riyadh earlier this week and approached him to ask if he was the former football club owner, according to a report in The Sun newspaper.

John Harding, one of the released, recounted the exchange that followed between the two men. “He went to him on the plane and asked him where he was from,” said Roman, “London.”

Then Sean said, ‘You really look like Roman Abramovich,’ and he replied, ‘It’s because I am him, sir.’ He couldn’t believe it.’

Five Britons were among the 10 people facing the death penalty at the hands of pro-Russian separatists who were unexpectedly released earlier this week. They were all accused of fighting as mercenaries on behalf of Ukraine, and were brought to trial in violation of the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war.

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Aiden Aslin, 28, returned to his family home near Newark on Thursday, as did other Britons, including Boehner, with whom he was tried in June. Aslin, Benner, and Moroccan Ibrahim Saadoun, who was also released this week, were sentenced to death in an internationally convicted verdict.

Abramovich did not confirm the reports but the billionaire, who was forced to sell Chelsea after Russia invaded Ukraine, appeared in unsuccessful peace talks between the two sides in Istanbul in March. He is not on the US sanctions list, in part because Ukraine has informed Washington that he is acting as a mediator.

Al-Jubeir said the mediation was an “initiative” led by bin Salman that dates back to April. And the foreign minister added: “We learned about the issue of these foreign detainees, and he has communicated with the United Kingdom and others, and of course with Russia and Ukraine, to work to end their expulsion.”

The Saudi minister said the deal to exchange the 10 foreign nationals is linked to a larger separate prisoner exchange deal between Ukraine and Russia. Al-Jubeir said, “This exchange only occurred when the ten nationals arrived in Saudi lands and were verified and that allowed the other exchange to move forward.”

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This means that Ukraine wanted Russia to show goodwill before releasing the pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 other prisoners, in exchange for 200 soldiers and five Azov battalion commanders who led the defense of Mariupol. That deal also included mediation by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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