The Kremlin’s chief spokesman told NBC News on Monday that two American fighters who went missing in Ukraine, Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were “soldiers of fortune,” and had been taken into custody. The spokesman also claimed that the two men were not protected by the Geneva Conventions as prisoners of war.
In the first comments the Kremlin has made about the two men, the spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said that they had been involved in shelling and firing on Russian forces and should be “held responsible for the crimes they have committed.” He said they were being held while their case was investigated.
The U.S. State Department released a statement urging Moscow and the authorities in Russian-occupied Ukraine to abide by international law. “We call on the Russian government — as well as its proxies — to live up to their international obligations in their treatment of any individual, including those captured fighting in Ukraine,” the statement from the State Department press office said.
Representatives of the men’s families said on Monday that they were not surprised by the Kremlin’s stance, but they argued vehemently that Mr. Drueke and Mr. Huynh should be protected by the Geneva Conventions.
“They are not soldiers of fortune, they are not mercenaries, they were volunteers in the Ukrainian military and they should be treated as lawful combatants,” Darla Black, the mother of Mr. Huynh’s fiancée, Joy Black, said by phone. “They are prisoners of war.”
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Mr. Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, suggested that calling the men mercenaries was a strategic move by Moscow. “They are trying to position themselves in a favorable light as negotiations continue,” she said.
The families of the men reported them missing last week, and on Saturday the State Department described them as “reportedly captured by Russia’s military forces in Ukraine.” Both are U.S. military veterans who volunteered to fight in Ukraine.
The two were fighting with a small group of foreign soldiers and went missing in action when their platoon came under heavy fire in a village near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is about 25 miles 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 prosecutions on war crimes charges.
But Mr. Peskov said the men were not part of the Ukrainian army and so were not entitled to Geneva Convention protections granted to combatants. Mr. Drueke is a former U.S. Army staff sergeant who served two tours in Iraq, while Mr. Huynh is a former Marine.
The case of the two men has underlined the perils facing thousands of foreign volunteers who have gone to fight in Ukraine. Earlier this month, a court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine sentenced three foreign fighters to death, accusing the men, from Britain and Morocco, of being mercenaries who intended to carry out 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 on Saturday that it had reviewed photos and videos online that appeared to show the two Americans, although it declined to comment on the authenticity of the images or on the men’s conditions.
American officials were in contact with the men’s families, the Ukrainian authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross, a State Department spokesman 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 war.” It was unclear when the videos were recorded or by whom.
Then the Russian state broadcaster RT said it had interviewed the men. The broadcaster reported that the two men had surrendered to Russian troops and were at a detention center controlled by Russian-allied forces.