An Azov hero has told of his Mission Impossible-style helicopter escape from the Mariupol steelworks under a hail of gunfire.
Details of the rescue mission were revealed yesterday by Ukraine’s military chief, who described how old Soviet helicopters flew in lines of twos and fours through Russia’s air defences to drop off aid and pick up the wounded from the besieged city.
Not all the pilots made it home, with at least two helicopters known to have been shot down.
But Colonel Giorgi Kuparashvili, co-founder of the Azov regiment which held out for nearly three months in the face of the Russian onslaught, was among those who escaped.
Azov co-founder Lieutenant Colonel Giorgi Kuparashvili, who was one of the injured soldiers evacuated in a daring helicopter rescue from the Mariupol steelworks shortly before the rest surrendered
The 44-year-old was evacuated – naked – immediately after doctors performed risky surgery inside the Azovstal plant after he was shot twice in the stomach, severing his sciatic nerve and leaving him unable to walk.
‘I was brought wounded into the basement several floors underground,’ Lieutenant Colonel Kuparashvili told the Daily Mail from his hotel in Kyiv, where he is recovering.
‘All the hospitals in Mariupol had been bombed, but we still had a small number of doctors in the steelworks.
‘The guys performed the operation perfectly. It was really incredible. In this so-called bunker underground they still had proper equipment at that point.
‘They took out the two bullets from my stomach while bombs were raining down on us.
‘Next to me was a comrade who had his arm completely cut off – and he was already helping another wounded soldier even though he could barely walk himself. They are all such inspiring men. They couldn’t even put clothes on me – they had to take me out completely naked.’
A Ukrainian medical evacuation helicopter lands in front of Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, in Mariupo
Details of the ‘impossible missions’ undertaken by helicopter pilots to the steelworks were finally released by Kyrylo Budanov, Kyiv’s head of military intelligence.
He claimed that ‘all missions were successful’, but did not share casualty figures from the downed flights that saw at least two helicopters shot down.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky previously praised the ‘absolutely heroic’ pilots for undertaking the mercy missions ‘knowing that 90 per cent do not return’.
Lieutenant Colonel Kuparashvili was one of the lucky few who got out. ‘It was at four in the morning that we had to get to the rescue point,’ he said.But to reach this point we had to get through bombing, people shooting. Battles were raging all around.’
A satellite image taken by Planet Labs PBC shows the damage at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol this month
What followed was extraordinary even for the Lieutenant Colonel who has fought for his native Georgia in Iraq and has been a bodyguard to his former president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
‘It was crazy,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in all sorts of places in my career and have seen everything – but this was a different kind of madness.’
Miraculously Lieutenant Colonel Kuparashvili’s helicopter made it straight through the Russian air defences which were all focused on the steelworks and out to Dnipro. Sadly, he has not heard from his pilot since – and believes he is dead after returning on yet another mission after dropping off the colonel.
This satellite image shows the eastern end of the Azovstal steel plant and the aftermath of continued aerial and artillery attacks on the compound in eastern Mariupol
‘There was a minuscule chance of us reaching our destination. But what difference did it make whether you died on the ground or in the air? It still was a chance.’
Lieutenant Colonel Kuparashvili mentored Azov’s leader, Denis Prokopenko, after leaving Georgia to join the fight against Russia in 2014.
His wife, Natalie, 40, and their children Luka, 16, Elizabeth, 14, and Andrew, 12, had to move to London after a price was put on his head that year. He has not seen his family since. He dreams of living with them, but for now his focus is on getting his comrades back. ‘We cannot forget them, and I will not stop until I have my men back,’ he said.