Grim Azovstal siege and suicide mission airlift to resupply die-hard holdouts

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    Today marks the anniversary of the end of the Azovstal siege, sometimes described as “Ukraine’s Dunkirk”.

    The three-month battle for Mariupol ended with a last-ditch defence of the city’s steelworks that inspired a wave of international sympathy.

    Russia almost completely flattened Mariupol with endless airstrikes and artillery barrages. The destruction of the one of the city's maternity units and Mariupol's theatre, where hundreds of people were taking shelter, shocked the world.

    READ MORE: Bombing hospitals, gassing children – the bloody atrocities of ‘Butcher of Mariupol’

    But the massive Azovstal iron and steel works remained, described by witnesses as a “fortress within the city”.

    Putin ordered his troops to blockade the plant, “so not even a fly can escape”.

    The main Ukrainian unit sealed inside the sprawling steelworks was The Azov Regiment, a force developed from a far-right all-volunteer militia that was often used in Russian propaganda broadcasts as evidence that Ukraine was run by “Nazis”.

    They were reinforced by regular Ukrainian marines and foreign volunteers.

    Hundreds of civilians had also taken refuge in the factory's miles of tunnels.

    • US volunteer in Ukraine shows inside abandoned camp where 'Russians took off in a hurry'

    Conditions inside the dark, freezing and badly-ventilated underground base started as bad, and became truly horrific as stocks of food, water and vital medicines dwindled.

    Amputations were carried out with little or no anaesthetic and the defenders ran dangerously low on ammunition.

    One defender said: “It feels like I’ve landed in a hellish reality show in which us soldiers fight for our lives and the whole world watches this interesting episode. Pain, suffering, hunger, misery, tears, fears, death. It’s all real.”

    • Hero Brit fighters trapped in bunker with starving Ukrainians in under-siege Mariupol

    A desperate helicopter airlift was put in place to resupply the defenders.

    Between March 21 and May 11 last year, a total of 15 helicopters and 45 aircrew made nearly 30 rescue missions to Azovstal.

    They delivered communications gear from Elon Musk’s Starlink company as well as ammunition and medicine. On the return flights the helicopters were loaded with wounded Ukrainian fighters.

    • Russians 'caught admitting to shelling own citizens' so they can blame Ukraine

    Six flights successfully completed the mission and returned. More than 20 did not.

    The helicopters were stripped of any non-essential gear to make the deadly journey through a ring of Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

    Colonel Hryhorii, a squadron leader in the 12th Brigade of Army Aviation, told The Times: “Everything that was unnecessary was unloaded from the aircraft to make way for the cargo, even the machineguns.

    “The pilots saw their task and understood it was dangerous to the point of impossible. But no one refused.”

    • Putin using 'hunger as a weapon' to starve Ukraine, president Zelenskyy says

    One of the pilots, who gave his names “Ginger” explained that while the first resupply missions caught the Russians by surprise, subsequent mission were more dangerous: “The next flights looked like impudence on our part,” Ginger said.

    “They were waiting for us. Every helicopter was fired upon, many of them taking damage.”On March 31, four Mi-8 helicopters made the trip, escorted by a Hind Mi-24 attack helicopter for cover.

    As the Hind took on Russian anti-aircraft emplacements two of the transports here hit with shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missiles: “One was shot down and the other returned with only one engine,” Ginger said. “But he brought 22 wounded back.”

    • Russians are fleeing and 'using children as human shields' as 'death toll hits 18,000'

    As the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest reached its climax, the frontman for the winning basin – Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, begged the massive TV audience: “I ask all of you, please help Azovstal, right now!”

    Finally, on May 16, President Zelenskyy told the defenders it was time to surrender. “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” he said.

    Even then, the fighters’ torment was not over.

    Oksana, an Azovstal employee, told The Guardian: “No one came out of there unchanged. “They were one person when they went in, and another person when they came out.”

    • Russian commander 'shot himself when he realised 90% of his tanks didn't work' – Ukraine

    One of the fighters, Mykhailo Dianov, told Sky News after his release from a Russian POW camp he thought he would never survive: “We thought this every day. At Azovstal we thought it was the end.

    “After a month of starvation, when you close your eyes, you forget about your family, everything. The only thing you think about is food.” He lost over six stone during the siege.

    In the Russian prisoner-of-war camp, he said, the guards “treated us like animals. It was impossible to eat.”

    • Bombing hospitals, gassing children – the bloody atrocities of ‘Butcher of Mariupol’

    As the 2,500 Ukrainian fighters emerged from the ruined steel plant, they were loaded onto buses and shipped off to destinations in Russian -occupied territory. For months their fate remained a mystery.

    The Kremlin hinted at trials, and possible death sentences.

    But then, in September, Kyiv announced that over 200 POWs had been returned as part of a prisoner swap deal, including Lt Colonel Denys Prokopenko, the Azov Battalion’s commander.

    But by the end of the year, some 1,000 Azov soldiers remained prisoners of war. And Ukrainian officials say that the bodies of an unknown number of soldiers still lie buried under the rubble of Azovstal.

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