“The special operation was planned and conducted by the military intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine,” Budanov said.
Ukraine dispatched Mi-8 helicopters to Mariupol two at a time, and once four helicopters were sent at once, he said.
The spy chief revealed that 16 helicopters were sent in total to Mariupol to help the Ukrainian military. Two of them were shot down by the invaders during the fifth and seventh flights. Another helicopter was brought down when it went to assist another downed helicopter.
Budanov added that there were only seven sorties: the helicopters delivered weapons, ammunition, medicine, and food to Azovstal, as well as an additional 72 soldiers from the Azov Regiment to reinforce the Ukrainian defenders.
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Budanov did not disclose information about the crews of the helicopters that were shot down.
Earlier, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said that “a very large number of [Ukrainian] pilots died during missions in Azovstal.”
Ukrainian defenders at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol held the line in a complete encirclement, while heavy fighting was taking place. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, 6,000 occupiers have been killed in the city. Russian troops inflicted several dozen strikes on Azovstal every day, using aircraft, tanks, and heavy artillery.
The government had previously reported that the evacuation of all civilians from Azovstal ended on May 7. On top of that, according to the British Ministry of Defense, up to 1,700 defenders of the city were evacuated from Azovstal. The Ukrainian authorities have not commented on this information.
Read also: Exits from occupied Mariupol toward Zaporizhzhya patrolled by Kadyrov’s troops, says mayoral advisor
On May 18, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said that the operation to save the defenders of Mariupol was continuing, but the process was very delicate and any public comments could hurt the operation.
On May 20, Azovstal had officially fallen, with the remaining defenders surrendering to Russian forces. Military experts have said that Azovstal’s defense had tied up a significant portion of Russia’s troops in Donbas.