A British man released from Russian captivity in a prisoner swap has told ITV News about the moment he realised he was free. Neil Connery reports
John Harding was one of five British nationals released by Russia on Wednesday. They were among a larger group of 10 foreigners whose release had been secured in part by Saudi Arabia.
Now, back home in Sunderland, John said the men had no idea where they were going for a large portion of the journey.
"They put bags over our heads and walked us to the front of the prison... they cuffed our hands together with sellotape… and they put us in the back of a truck and taped us all together," the 60-year-old said.
After an uncomfortable journey of around 20 hours, the group were put onto a private plane with people wearing traditional Saudi dress.
“My immediate thought was, 'They’re probably not going to kill us here, at least not now'," a tearful Mr Harding told ITV News.
Mr Harding recounts an interaction on the flight with Roman Abramovich
This fear of harm was not totally unfounded - Mr Harding had been in Ukraine's Donbas region since 2018, using his skills as a combat medic in the fight against pro-Russian rebels.
He was captured in May, and just last month his trial was broadcasted on Russian state television.
Once the private jet had taken to air, Mr Harding and his fellow prisoners of war were still unaware that they were heading to their families.
“A couple of the [Saudis] that spoke English were like 'are you okay'. Even a couple of the ones that didn’t speak English were smiling at us and giving us a thumbs up," he said.
Mr Harding then tucked into a slap-up meal ("my eyes were bigger than my belly - we hadn't eaten properly for months!") before one of the group spotted a familiar face on the flight.
"Shaun is a football fan and he was talking to one of the guys and said, I think that’s Roman Abramovich," recounted Mr Harding.
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The Russian billionaire, this year sanctioned by the UK government over alleged links to Vladimir Putin, has participated in peace efforts during the Ukraine war.
Mr Harding learned he'd worked with Saudi Arabia to help secure the captives release.
The journey from Ukraine to Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, then to the UK, was a "whirlwind", he said.
'We had a lot to catch up on': Mr Harding describes reuniting with his family
Eventually, he was reunited in a London hotel with his cousin Tommy and sister Denise.
"We had a lot of catching up to do," he said.
Asked what he would say to Abramovich given the chance, Mr Harding replied: "Thanks Roman!"