Ukrainian special forces teams managed seven successful sorties in support of the Azovstal defenders last year, when Mariupol was under siege and on the verge of falling.

General Viktor Khorenko, commander of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SSO), revealed in an interview published on the “SSO of Ukraine” YouTube channels details of seven daring helicopter sorties in and out of the Azovstal fortress during the siege of Mariupol.

The colossal Azovstal steel plant in the middle of the city was where the Azov Regiment, the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, and others – including civilians – were holed up for a last stand under relentless bombardment until May 20.

The SSO studied the situation and enemy positions by means of radio-electronic warfare, Khorenko said. Each mission used a different number of helicopters.

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Khorenko recalled maintaining direct communication with Denys Prokopenko (callsign Redis) the commander of the Azov special forces brigade.

“Redis, with whom we were in direct contact, told us what he needed at that moment. Because you have 15 tons of cargo, and one rotorcraft that can lift about two tons,” Khorenko said.

At that moment, Redis had no idea he was communicating with the SSO commander. Khorenko introduced himself to Prokopenko with different call signs for security reasons, so that the Russians would not be able to identify the unit carrying out the operation.

The SSO commander emphasized that the volunteers willingly embarked on these flights to Azovstal, with the primary objective being the delivery of essential ammunition to the besieged forces in Mariupol. Some individuals who expressed a desire to join the defense effort were also airlifted to Azovstal.

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A local official noted “reinforcements of all kinds” around Mariupol as Russia brought in 5,000 more troops for training and to bolster reserve units for the eastern front.

“But when 10 volunteers come and say, ‘We want to fly to defend Azovstal,’ then we have to make difficult decisions. What to deliver: ammo, medicines, communications, or people who will defend,” Khorenko recalls.

He underscored the time-sensitive nature of the operations, highlighting the rapid unloading process that had to be completed within 10 minutes. The general noted that the unloading of cargo took a mere five minutes, facilitating the swift evacuation of the wounded from the plant.

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Although Russian Telegram Channels had previously reported the downing of Ukrainian helicopters near Mariupol in the initial months of the full-scale war, Ukrainian authorities refrained from officially acknowledging the special operations.

It was only at the end of May last year that President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed the involvement of Ukrainian aviation in combat flights, acknowledging the sacrifice of several Ukrainian pilots who attempted to breach the blockade at Azovstal.

The President said that food and medicine had been delivered to the defenders of Mariupol, along with efforts to evacuate the wounded.

Ukrainian authorities refrained from making official comments on the operations due to the active presence of Russian air defenses in the area.

Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of military intelligence (HUR), corroborated the occurrence of seven such missions to Azovstal, involving a total of 16 Mi-8 helicopters, including reinforcements for Azov.

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However, Budanov also revealed that during the fifth and seventh missions, Russian forces downed two helicopters, with another helicopter shot down during a rescue attempt.

Currently, reports from the families of the captured defenders of Azovstal suggest that Russian authorities are subjecting them to torture while delaying their potential return to Ukraine.

The wife of one of the Azov fighters shared with Kyiv Post the harrowing experiences endured by Ukrainian POWs in a Russian prison in Taganrog.

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