Friday, April 19

‘They’ve gone through hell’: fears for British prisoners of war in Ukraine | Ukraine

CChris Garrett recalled his last conversation with the British fighter Aiden Aslin. Aslin was holed up in Mariupol and surrounded by Russian forces. He had run out of food and ammunition. It seemed unlikely he would get out of the city alive. “We talked on the phone. Aiden told me: ‘I think we are going to have to surrender,’” Garrett said.

Two days later, Aslin and his fellow British fighter Shaun Pinner negotiated with a Russian commander. They emerged from the ghostly shattered ruins of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters continue to hold out in underground tunnels. Both are now prisoners of war in Donetsk, the eastern Ukrainian city run by pro-Moscow separatists since 2014.

The pair are also at the center of a political row. Downing Street has suggested they should not have been in Mariupol in the first place. The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said he had had sympathy with the captured Britons but said they were fighting in Ukraine “illegally”. He would not comment on government efforts to get them back.

Chris Garrett. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Garrett – a British fighter working as a sapper in Ukraine – said Lewis’s remarks were “completely false”. The pair had signed a legal long-term contract several years ago with Ukraine’s ministry of defense and were not in the same category as foreign legion volunteers, who arrived in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, he said. “They have homes and partners here. Shaun has a Ukrainian wife,” he said.

“They are very nice guys,” Garrett added, speaking in a cafe in Kyiv, just off the capital’s main Khreschatyk boulevard. “They have gone through absolute hell. There is no way to comprehend what they have been through. Shaun was injured by shrapnel. Nobody really expected them to get out. If they’d surrendered to Chechens they would be dead.”

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Garrett’s own connection with Ukraine goes back to 2014. A former soldier from the Isle of Man, he visited Kyiv in the aftermath of its pro-European Maidan revolution. He subsequently joined a Ukrainian brigade, clearing mines and unexploded ordnance. He left in 2017 and came back four days after Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked February attack.

Both of his friends have given interviews to Russian state media. Garrett said it was clear they had spoken under duress and were being exploited by Moscow for propaganda purposes. The British propagandist Graham Phillips, who has worked for the Kremlin RT channel, described Aslin as a “mercenary”. “I watched the video yesterday. I don’t think it’s right. It’s against the Geneva conventions [to show footage of them],” Garrett said. When asked, prisoners of war are obliged to give their real name and rank. They cannot be compelled to give more information, the conventions say.

Russia’s foreign ministry claimed on Thursday the two were being “fed, watered, and given the necessary assistance”.

Aslin was serving as a marine in Ukraine’s 36th brigade. He appeared on Russian TV, however, wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the far-right Azov battalion. Putin says his “special operation” in Ukraine is needed to “denazify” the country. “The T-shirt looks brand new. It would not have been Aiden’s. The Russians probably picked it up when they took the Azov base in Mariupol,” Garrett said. Garrett has worked with the Azov battalion, but he has said he is not rightwing or a Nazi sympathizer.

He has himself been the target of smears by Russian state media. In January 2015 he was stationed in Mariupol when it came under indiscriminate rocket attack from separatist-held territory. He saw a dead young woman half blown into a shop window. “I covered her head with a bright pink frock,” he said. A TV crew ambushed him minutes later and he was accused by RT of being an American spy.

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The Kremlin appears to be hinting it might be prepared to swap the two British prisoners for Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent pro-Moscow Ukrainian politician. Medvedchuk was arrested last week while trying to flee Ukraine. Aslin mentioned a possible exchange with Medvedchuk in his interview with him. “They are feeding him lines to say,” Garrett said, adding that his friends of him were “mentally strong guys.”

Garrett, 38, was scathing about some of the western volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine, eager to shoot Russians. They include ex-military personnel from the US, UK, Canada and other countries: “Some are useful. But many tell tall tales.” He said former soldiers should not volunteer unless they had specific skills, such as training in the use of anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons.

Few foreign soldiers, he added, had experience of what was taking place in Donbas, the new focus for Russia’s military operation and advance. He said the fighting was characterized by heavy bombardment, artillery and relentless mortar fire. “We are seeing the biggest trench warfare since world war two,” he said, adding that both sides were taking losses.

Garrett is now heading east. He admitted he wasn’t looking forward to going back to the frontline. His own skills in defusing sub-munitions and removing tripwires were likely to be needed for years to come, he said. The Russian army had left booby traps and ammunition across the Kyiv region, during a month-long occupation, with Donbas and other areas also extensively mined.

His prognosis for Mariupol was bleak. On Thursday Putin declared victory in the port city on the sea of ​​Azov and said Russian forces would not try to storm the Azovstal factory. Instead they would block it to ensure nobody got out. About 1,000 civilians, including women and children, are trapped inside. Attempts by the Kyiv government to evacuate them have failed.

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What would happen to the Ukrainian fighters still in Mariupol’s steelworks? “They will all die, I’m afraid,” he said. “They know that if they surrender they will be killed. The factory is designed to withstand a nuclear strike. It’s a huge facility built on multiple levels. But sooner or later they will run out of food. Their head-torches will stop working.”

He added: “If it were me I would rather die in an airstrike than starve to death in a dark basement.”

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