And Chechen troops, already accused of the rape and murder of civilians, have been offered a financial bounty by Russian commanders to kill or capture any Briton who volunteered to fight, sources revealed last night. Reports from Ukraine indicate that as many as 1,000 resistance fighters remain inside the Azovstal steel factory – living in a labyrinth of deep tunnels initially designed as nuclear shelters.
They represent the last pocket of resistance in the strategic port city which is now under Russian control.
Of those, at least three are former British soldiers with previous combat experience in Afghanistan. Two are former infantry corporals while the third is said to be a former combat medic.
He is thought to have his hands full helping to treat another 600 fighters who have been wounded during the constant barrage of Russian assaults over the last ten weeks. Many of these have received serious, life-changing wounds and cannot receive proper medical treatment.
The former soldiers were among the thousand or so British veterans who volunteered to help Ukrainian forces following the February 24 invasion by Russian forces.
Their presence in the besieged city was revealed last night by another former British soldier who joined the so-called International Brigade in Donetsk, before being injured and evacuated to Lviv for treatment.
“All three lads in the steel works served with the British Army, I know two have seen service in Afghanistan, but like me, they were surprised at the intensity of the conflict,“ said the 34-year-old veteran who served as a corporal with The Rifles.
“We travelled together just before the war started with the aim of joining the Ukrainians in the East. But they were sent to the south and reinforced the Azov regiment.”
He added: “I was with a couple of Canadians and did not hear from them again until March, when I received a text saying they had ended up in a steel factory in Mariupol.
“They told me there was another Brit who was badly injured in the factory and who had been fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
“Last month I had a few more texts and from what they said the conditions were terrible, but very well organised. They had food and water – but their biggest concern was ammunition.”
Chillingly, he said all resistance fighters at the Azovstal steel factory had been warned to “keep a round for themselves because no-one wants to be captured”.
He added: “I am told that, in several exchanges of bodies with the Russians on the border in 2015, it was clear, even then, that dead Ukrainian soldiers returned had been tortured first.
“Now the Chechens have been offered bounties by Russian commanders for any captured or killed Brit.
“They see Boris Johnson as the number one figure of hate and they are desperate to hit back at the UK for the help it has given to Ukraine.”
Azovstal is the last pocket of resistance in the strategic port city of Mariupol, which is perched on the Sea of Azov.
Last week harrowing images emerged of conditions inside the Azovstal plant, showing Ukrainian fighters who have had legs amputated in the makeshift field hospital erected by the Azov Regiment.
Commanders say the wounded are living in unsanitary conditions “with open wounds bandaged with non-sterile remnants of bandages, without the necessary medication and even food.”
Though all women, children and pensioners who had sought desperate refuge in the plant were said to have been evacuated as part of a humanitarian mission coordinated by the United Nations and the Red Cross (ICRC) last week, around a hundred civilians are thought to remain.
Last night Robert Clarke, director of defence and security at the Civitas think tank, said: “If the Ukrainians have British junior NCOs there, it’s not surprising they’re managing to hold out. Even two or three can make all the difference. They will be extremely valued right now.”
Clarke, himself a former infantry corporal, added: “Like the Russians, Ukraine’s army doesn’t really have an established NCO cadre.
“Junior NCOs in British infantry regiments attend platoon commander and section commander courses and are well trained.
“While officers organise orders and plan for the next day’s operations, it’s the junior NCOs who organise and construct defences, deciding where to place people and obstacles, making sure to channel attackers so the most vulnerable areas are covered. It’s their chief skill set. “
Last week, Col Sergei Volyna, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade in Mariupol, appealed to both tech tycoon Elon Musk and Turkish President Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to mediate for the safe extraction of wounded soldiers.
Following an appeal from Ukraine vice president Mykhailo Fedorov in February Musk, the world’s richest man, diverted his SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to boost the country’s internet services which had been disrupted by the invasion.
“There are 600 servicemen with injuries of varying degrees who are in dire need of help here,“ added Col Volynsky.
“We have civilians who have been wounded and who need medical assistance.”