Britain is “not looking at how we can help Russia”, a cabinet minister has said after it was suggested that two captured British fighters could be exchanged for a pro-Kremlin oligarch.
Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, who have been held in Ukraine, have appeared on Russian state TV and asked to be swapped for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician who is close to Vladimir Putin.
Mr Medvedchuk was himself last week detained by Ukrainian secret services after going on the run – having been under house arrest – shortly after the invasion by Mr Putin’s forces.
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The oligarch – who is also the subject of UK sanctions – was shown in a video released by Ukraine around the same time as that of the British captives asking to be swapped too.
But asked by Sky News’ Kay Burley about the potential for such a swap, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said: “We’re actually going through the process of sanctioning people who are close to the Putin regime.
“We’re not going to be looking at how we can help Russia, we’re looking to actually ensure that the Putin regime is unsuccessful in this abhorrent invasion and we’ll continue to do everything we can to support the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian president and government to defeat Putin.”
Asked whether that meant the British captives were “on their own”, Mr Lewis said: “They shouldn’t have been there, it is an illegal act to be there.
“Obviously, anybody will have sympathy with somebody who has been taken hostage but we have got to make sure that we follow the proper processes, that we are dealing with this in the right way.”
Asked whether the UK was involved in trying to get the men back to Britain, Mr Lewis said he would not comment on “what are effectively national security issues”.
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Labour’s shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said: “We should be negotiating with the Russians to try to get them back but I don’t think we can give in to blackmail.
“If we start doing that then it just encourages more snatching of hostages.”
She said it was right for Mr Lewis to stress that it was against the law for British citizens to go and fight in Ukraine.
The families of Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin have said the British nationals are not mercenary soldiers or volunteers and should therefore be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
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Mr Pinner, a former British Army soldier, appeared tired in the video on Russian state TV as he said he was captured in Mariupol while fighting with Ukrainian marines.
The 48-year-old added that he had been fighting in the besieged city for five to six weeks but was now in the breakaway region of Donetsk.
Mr Aslin, from Newark in Nottingham, was filmed being led around in handcuffs with a cut on his forehead after surrendering to the Russian military in Mariupol last week.
The 28-year-old had been involved in defending the city with his unit during heavy fighting in recent weeks before having to surrender after 48 days.