Fears for ex-British soldier who disappeared after being captured by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine
A former British soldier has disappeared after being captured by pro-Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine.
Combat Doctor John Harding, 59, believed to be a former paratrooper and Falkland veteran, was seen being evacuated along with his comrades after their surrender in Mariupol last month. But he hasn’t been seen since.
Two other Britons who fought alongside him, Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, and were also captured, have since been sentenced to death by Vladimir Putin’s accomplices in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Another imprisoned Briton, the father of four, Andrew Hill, 35, faces the death penalty.
Harding joined the Ukrainian army five years ago after fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
Combat Doctor John Harding, 59, is said to have fought in the Falklands War as a youngster
A popular figure from the North East of England, nicknamed ‘Pops’ by comrades, he was featured in TV footage of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters surrendering at the Azovstal industrial plant in Mariupol after 82 days of Russian bombing.
Now friends and former comrades fear he was killed by the separatists, as he has not been seen since, while other British and American prisoners have been paraded in front of Russian TV cameras for propaganda.
Alex Grant, an American volunteer with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, confirmed that Harding had been seen in photos from the news agency and that there was growing concern about his fate. “You can only draw two conclusions: either he was taken to a secret concentration camp or they killed him shortly after the surrender,” he said.
Grant, who has known Harding since 2018, described his comrade as “an adventurer and a good medic” and added: “He always wanted to help and serve the people of Ukraine. He lasted as long as possible in Mariupol and that’s why he’s a hero.’
Harding (center, head in hand) was last seen evacuating Mariupol on May 20
In March and April, Harding wrote 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 a message.
After another 12-hour intense bombardment, he wrote: ‘I wonder how much of the above-ground structure is still intact. I haven’t been on the ground for three or maybe four days. I can imagine it’s pretty messy there.’
At one point, he cut his hair short after three months of growth and wrote, “If I’m going to die here, I’m going to die a soldier.”
Harding sent reports of an escape attempt on May 19 when hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated by Moscow’s troops. It is clear that they have been taken to a crowded prison that is notorious for their brutality.
Harding served in the British Army for nine years after enlisting at age 16. While fighting in Syria, he told his comrades that he had been a paratrooper who took part in the famous ‘yomp’ over the Falklands during the 1982 war.
The Army veteran, who has a tattoo that reads “Happy Days” on his arm, admitted he’d gone back into uniform since missing the camaraderie of military service and combat duty — though he told a reporter that “in the struggle is scary’ ‘.
He joined Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in 2015 after seeing horrific video footage of a Jordanian pilot being 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 from the following year described how he voluntarily wore a mine and tucked it under his chin to ensure he would not survive in a severely mangled condition if it exploded.
The paper also detailed Harding’s desperate but failed attempts to rescue a six-year-old boy who had been shot in the chest. “I purposely don’t think of him because it’s painful, but I see his likeness in every six- or seven-year-old child I see,” the medic said.
Harding, a civil electrical engineer, joined Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas in 2017, along with his friends Aslin, a former health care provider from Newark, and Pinner, who has a Ukrainian wife. as well as in the British Army.
Last night, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Azov regiment – the voluntary militia formed to fight the Russians after their 2014 invasion that later became part of the Kiev National Guard – confirmed that Harding was a member of his second medical unit. battalion that had been hiding in Azovstal.
Bo Warren, who spent four months with Harding while serving on the front lines with Kurdish troops, said, “Everyone loved Pops because he was an older figure who had been through it all.”
He added that Harding felt his destiny was to die in war after seeing so many friends die in battle in Africa, the Middle East, the South Atlantic and Ukraine. “I don’t think he intended to die of old age.”
A source at the Foreign Office said attempts were being made to verify reports of Britons who may have been involved in the fighting, but admitted: “Given the situation in Ukraine, our ability to obtain information and consular services on the ground has been compromised.” grant is severely limited. †