As he sat tied up and hooded in the darkness of a lorry driven by his Russian captors, John Harding sensed his life was about to end. The former engineer had been in transit for 20 hours – one of five British hostages taped together in the back of an old truck.
Suddenly someone realised they must have crossed Ukraine’s eastern border into Russia. It was then Mr Harding’s pulse quickened and he feared the worst.
Were they being taken from the war zone to be executed with their corpses buried in the soil of ‘Mother Russia’ never to be uncovered? he asked himself.
The 59-year-old, from Sunderland, even pictured in his mind’s eye the stump he would be tied to and the sound of the executioner’s rifle clicking. It would be a tragic end to his four months detained on the orders of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, he thought, during which time he had been tortured and beaten while interrogated.
His sadistic captors had used cattle prods to jab prisoners and adapted an old phone into a torture device. The prisoners of war would be ordered to dial a number and when the dial turned they would receive an electric shock – ‘quite inventive’, says Mr Harding. During his captivity in Russian-occupied Donetsk, he shared a cramped prison cell, measuring 13ft by 6ft, with other inmates who were locked up for 23 hours a day.
Inevitably his health suffered, his legs ‘wasted away’ as his weight plummeted to just eight stone. He also suffered neurological damage to his spine and hands. Worst of all, he had seen a fellow British hostage die in captivity.
The Russians had failed to meet the daily medication requirements of diabetic aid worker Paul Urey, 45, from Warrington, Cheshire, who died in July while Mr Harding was out in an exercise area. He came back to find the body.
Home at last: John Harding with his sister Denise yesterday. While imprisoned, his legs ‘wasted away’ as his weight plummeted to just eight stone. He also suffered neurological damage to his spine and hands. Worst of all, he had seen a fellow British hostage die in captivity
During his captivity in Russian-occupied Donetsk, he shared a cramped prison cell, measuring 13ft by 6ft, with other inmates who were locked up for 23 hours a day
Mr Harding had been serving as a combat medic in the Ukrainian armed forces when he was captured by the Russians. He was facing the death penalty and his guards made him record a video to say goodbye to his daughter because he was due to be executed by firing squad.
When the truck from Ukraine to Russia finally pulled up. Mr Harding and his friends, Aiden Aslin, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and Shaun Pinner were bundled out as guards barked instructions. When the goons removed his hood, dazed Mr Harding realised he had been driven to an airstrip. There was more shouting and the captives were marched towards a plane.
Describing his ordeal for the first time to the Daily Mail yesterday, he said: ‘We’d been on the floor of the truck and all that time it crossed my mind [it was our final journey]. And when someone realised we were in Russia we were like “Oh, f***!” We weren’t sure if that journey was going to end with us tied to a post. We got to the airstrip and we were told to get on the plane.
‘We still didn’t know where we were going. The window blinds were down as weren’t allowed to open them. But we were given food. We took off and we were flying for a long time.
‘Then someone told me we were over Egypt. Finally, I lifted the blinds at 30,000ft and thought for the first time “We’re not going to die”.’ His ordeal and those of the four other British PoWs was over.
Their release had been negotiated as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman acting as an intermediary.
Mr Harding was also told that former Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich was involved in the negotiations, but this has not been confirmed.
On the frontline: Mr Harding is pictured serving in war-torn Ukraine before his capture. The 59-year-old was prepared for a tragic end to his four months detained on the orders of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin
Kremlin ally in prisoner swap
Viktor Medvedchuk, pictured shortly after his arrest, was reportedly released in exchange for the 10 prisoners of war which included five Brits
Russian nationalists reacted with fury yesterday after Ukraine secured the release of more than 200 prisoners of war.
The surprise deal saw commanders and soldiers from the elite Azov regiment freed with just 55 Russian detainees handed to Moscow, including staunch Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk, pictured. But Kremlin hardliners said Russia should have sought more concessions.
Former Russian colonel Igor Girkin branded the pact ‘treason’. He said the prisoner exchange ‘was worse than a crime and worse than a mistake. It is unacceptable stupidity’.
Moscow also released ten foreigners, including five British nationals.
Last night, Ukraine’s military intelligence unit said many of those freed showed signs of torture.
As part of the Gulf state’s role in the prisoner exchange, Mr Harding and his friends were flown to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday evening. He said: ‘I was flown to Riyadh, given a medical check-up and we were met by British consular representatives. They provided us with emergency passports and put us on a British Airways flight to Heathrow.
‘All us English lads were together – me, Aiden, Dylan, Andrew and Shaun. They gave us real food for the first time in months. We had beef and rice, chicken, spring rolls. My eyes were bigger than my stomach.’ Their in-flight meals were a world away from the food served in the prisons in Donetsk where he had been held following Mr Harding’s capture in Mariupol, the port city besieged by Russian forces earlier this year.
After weeks of bombardment, Ukraine military units, which included many foreign fighters, were running out of ammunition. Inevitably they were forced to put down their weapons.
Mr Harding said: ‘We surrendered at the Azov steelworks because we couldn’t keep up the fight. We had injured people too and we were worried how we’d get them through enemy lines.
‘The Ukrainians negotiated a surrender deal which the Russians immediately reneged on. We were told we would be treated as PoWs under the Geneva Convention but within 48 hours we were in the custody of the MGB – Donetsk’s version of the KGB.
‘There were beatings, electrocutions and more beatings. One guy was stabbed in the leg and they stitched him up after that. I think they tortured us for fun.
‘It could go on for an hour to several hours.
‘Our captors would take us to the “prosecutor’s office” where we had our interviews. During the transport was when we’d usually get a bit of a beating. Sometimes they’d walk you into door posts then you’d hit your head. You were always blindfolded.’
Mr Harding now faces potentially months of physiotherapy and counselling. He spent his first few hours in Britain with his elderly mother Lilian, sister Denise and other close relatives. He is yet to speak to his daughter.
His taste for adventure had previously taken him to the former Soviet state of Georgia.
In 2015 he travelled to northern Syria when he joined a Kurdish unit to fight Islamic State. On his return, he was questioned by UK counter-terror police, but released without charge. He said he went to Ukraine to serve as a combat medic, hoping to make a difference. He stressed: ‘I call myself a freedom fighter, not a mercenary. My personal view is it doesn’t really matter why people came here as long as the results are valid. What isn’t welcome is when people come here to kill people. While that may be part of the job, it cannot be the motivating factor.
‘Some people are politically-motivated, some people have the desire to fight a war. Some people are ex-military but never deployed anywhere so they feel they have something to prove.’
He added: ‘I’m not going to lie to you, being in battle is a scary thing. But people enjoy the achievement of doing it. And the camaraderie is something that’s undeniable.’
Back home with their families, Britons released in Ukraine deal
Five British hostages who faced the threat of a Russian firing squad in Ukraine made an emotional return to Britain yesterday.
After months of imprisonment, torture and fear of execution, the men were finally reunited with their loved ones.
Last night, beers were raised and steak and red wine was on the menu for at least one of the captives as they tasted freedom again.
Aiden Aslin is pictured returning home in arrives home in Balderton, Newark, after months of imprisonment, torture and fear of execution
Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and John Harding appeared exhausted but elated as they arrived in the UK.
They had spent the previous two days in transit, first being driven bound and blindfolded from eastern Ukraine to an unknown destination in Russia.
They were then flown to Saudi Arabia where they received medical attention and were met by British consular officials before a British Airways flight brought them home, where their delighted relatives were waiting.
Mr Aslin arrived at his mother’s house in Newark, Nottinghamshire, around 2pm. The former care worker had spent five months behind bars, during which time he was stabbed by prison guards and endured mock executions.
He told reporters: ‘I have been through a traumatic experience and I just want to get into my house. I also want to thank everyone who helped secure our release, especially president [Volodymyr] Zelensky and the Saudis.’
Mr Aslin was accompanied by his Ukrainian fiancée Diana and his brother Nathan.
His mother Angela Wood said: ‘We are so relieved to have Aiden home. I have not slept all night. Aiden needs time to recover. We have all had a really long day.’
Mr Aslin’s grandmother Pamela Hall added: ‘I haven’t slept for 24 hours. This is amazing news. We’re so happy.’
Posts on social media by Mr Aslin’s friends yesterday suggested he had been stabbed and beaten while in captivity. His face had appeared swollen and bruised in video recordings of his interrogation by Russian forces.
The hostages also suffered psychological torture. They were told, ‘say goodbye to your families, you’re going to be killed’.
Before his capture, Mr Aslin frequently posted on Instagram from the frontline, using the profile ‘cossackgundi’. The account was run by a friend and remained active while he was imprisoned in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Last night a post on the account read: ‘I had my first phone call with Aiden in about five months this afternoon.
‘He sounds amazing, and is full of energy. What he went through was worse than what I thought. He lived up to his favourite Winston Churchill quote, “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. It is a new day and a very good one. Aiden is free! Our boys are free! Ukraine and her people will always be free! Thank you everyone for your support, from Aiden and me.’
Mr Aslin’s close friend, and comrade in a Ukrainian marine unit, Shaun Pinner, returned to his mother’s house in Luton, Bedfordshire, yesterday.
His jubilant step-father Lyndon Price said: ‘He has just got home. We picked him up from the airport this morning. All the families were there and, as you can, imagine it was very emotional.
Pinner is pictured with his army gear. Pinner and the other Brits: Aslin, Dylan Healy, Andrew Hill and John Harding appeared exhausted but elated as they arrived in the UK
Shaun Pinner, one of five Britons released from captivity by Russian-backed forces, is shown middle-right with his family, at his mother’s house in Luton, Bedfordshire
‘Shaun has been through quite a lot. We are very, very happy he is home. It is fantastic news. We are all together, Shaun’s son, my wife and Shaun’s sister.
‘I have just given him a shave. I took all his beard off for him. He is well and looks fine. He is so pleased to be home.
‘What Shaun has gone through isn’t for the faint-hearted. He’s tired, he’s had a couple of beers. He’s going to have steak and red wine tonight and he is looking forward to that.’
According to their families, the hostages were unaware of the negotiations intended to secure their release. As part of the same deal, hundreds of captured Ukrainian and a handful of Russian troops were set free.
Saudi Arabia acted as an intermediary between the governments of each country.
Remarkably, Mr Pinner is not ruling out a return to Ukraine.
Mr Price added: ‘At some stage, I think he will want to go back. He loves Ukraine. He might want to get involved in humanitarian work. His wife is still there too, we are hoping to get her over here.’
Mr Pinner, a former soldier in the Royal Anglian Regiment, enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces in 2018. He was sent to the frontline in the eastern region, known as the Donbas, and was captured by Russian forces in the southern port city of Mariupol in April this year.