Fear for ex-British soldier captured by Russian forces after steel plant surrender

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th June, 2022)

A former British soldier has disappeared after being captured by pro-Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine.

Combat medic John Harding, 59, thought to be an ex-paratrooper and Falklands veteran, was observed being evacuated with his comrades after their surrender last month in Mariupol. But he has not been seen since.

Two other Britons who were fighting alongside him, Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48. and were also captured have since been condemned to death by Vladimir Putin’s stooges in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

Another captured Britain, father-of-four Andrew Hill, 35, has been told to expect a death sentence also.

Harding joined the Ukrainian military five years ago after fighting against Islamic State in Syria.

A popular figure from the North East of England nicknamed ‘Pops’, he was seen in TV footage of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters surrendering at Azovstal industrial plant in Mariupol after 82 days of Russian bombardment.

Now friends and former comrades fear he may have been killed by the separatists since he has not been seen again, although other British and American captives have been paraded before Russian television cameras for propaganda.

Alex Grant, an American volunteer, confirmed that Harding had been identified in news agency footage of the steel plant evacuation and there was growing concern about his fate.

‘You can only draw two conclusions: either he’s been whisked away to a secret concentration camp or they murdered him shortly after the surrender.’ 

Grant, who has known Harding since 2018, described his comrade as ’an adventurer and a good medic’, adding: ‘He always wanted to help and serve the people of Ukraine. He held out for as long as he could doing so in Mariupol. And that’s why he’s a hero.’

In March and April, Harding posted on social media about life under Russian attack in Azovstal. ‘I don’t know how close they are but they don’t seem to be short of ammunition,’ he said in one post.

After another intense bombardment lasting 12 hours, he wrote: ‘I wonder how much of the above ground structure is still intact. I haven’t been to ground level  for three or maybe four days. I imagine it’s pretty messy up there.’

At one point he cut his hair short after three months’ growth, writing: ‘’If I am going to die here, I am going to die as a soldier.’

Harding sent messages about trying to escape on May 19 as hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were being evacuated by Moscow’s forces. It is understood they have been taken to an over-crowded prison in DPR that is notorious for its brutality.

Harding served with the British army for nine years after signing up aged 19. While fighting in Syria, he told his comrades he had been a paratrooper who took part in the famous ‘yomp’ across the Falklands during the 1982 war.

The army veteran, who has a tattoo saying ‘Happy Days’ on his arm, admitted that he had gone back into uniform since he missed the camaraderie of military service and combat duty – although told one journalist that ‘being in battle’s a scary thing.’

He joined Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in 2015 after seeing horrifying video footage of a Jordanian pilot burned alive and became commander of a Tactical Medical Unit, saying he ‘fell in love with the Kurdish struggle and the Kurds.’

A newspaper report the following year described how he volunteered to carry a mine away from a liberated area – tucking it under his chin to ensure he would not survive in a badly maimed condition if it exploded.

The paper also described Harding’s desperate, but failed, efforts to save a six-year-old boy who had been shot in the chest. ‘I purposely avoid thinking about him because it is painful, but I see his likeness in every 6- or 7-year-old child I see,’ said the medic.

An electrical engineer in civilian life, Harding joined Ukraine’s struggle in 2017 against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas in tandem with his friends Aslin, a former care worker from Newark, and Pinner, who has a Ukrainian wife and also served in the British army.

Last night a spokesman for Ukraine’s Azov Regiment – a volunteer militia formed to fight the Russians after the 2014 invasion that later became part of Kyiv’s National Guard – confirmed that Harding was in the medical unit of their second battalion that was sheltering inside the steel plant.

Bo Warren, who spent four months with Harding while serving on the frontline with Kurdish forces, said: ‘Everyone loved Pops because he was an older figure who had experienced everything before,’ he said.

He added that Harding felt that it was his destiny to die in war after seeing so many good friends fall in battles in Africa, the Middle East, the South Atlantic and Ukraine. ‘I don’t think he planned to die of old age.’

A foreign office source said efforts were being made to verify reports about Britons caught up in the fighting. ‘Given the situation in Ukraine, our ability to obtain information and provide consular services on the ground is severely limited.’

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