Ukraine hopes to trade steel mill fighters for Russian prisoners of war

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian fighters taken from the last resistance bastion in Mariupol were taken to a former penal colony in enemy-controlled territory, and a senior military official hoped they could be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. But a lawmaker in Moscow said they should be brought to justice.

The Russian parliament planned to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, who, according to Russian news agencies, held out for months at the Azovstal steel plant while Mariupol was under siege.

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops holed up in Azovstal have surrendered themselves this week, Russia’s defense ministry said Wednesday. More than 260 left Monday and nearly 700 have left since then.

Many are injured and it is not clear how many fighters are left in the sprawling steel mill.

Earlier, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said negotiations over the release of the fighters are underway, as are plans to eliminate the fighters still inside the sprawling steel plant. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the plans. Officials have not said how many are left inside.

The troops in the steel factory on the water are the last seat of resistance in Mariupol, which has been in Russian hands for some time.

Ukrainian servicemen are on a bus after being evacuated on May 17, 2022, from the besieged Mariupol Azovstal steel plant near a pre-trial detention facility in Olyonivka, in the area under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, in eastern Ukraine.

AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov

In an unrelated development that could tarnish the gloss of a Russian declaration of victory in Mariupol, Sweden and Finland both officially applied to join NATO on Wednesday, a move prompted by security concerns over the Russian Federation. invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an attempt to counter NATO expansion, but he saw that strategy backfired by the public in Sweden and Finland, traditionally nonaligned countries. , to drive the western alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the applications, which now have to be weighed by 30 member states.

Mariupol was the target of Russia in the early days of the invasion. Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine had bitterly contested the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it attempted to capture a land corridor from its homeland to the Crimean peninsula, which it captured from Ukraine in 2014. †

“Despite Russian forces surrounding Mariupol for more than 10 weeks, fervent Ukrainian resistance has slowed Russia’s ability to take full control of the city,” the ministry said. “This frustrated early attempts to capture an important city and caused costly personnel losses among Russian forces.”

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters — some seriously wounded and taken away on stretchers — left the ruins of the Azovstal factory on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring parties. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 694 Ukrainian soldiers have turned themselves over in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 959.

Seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the factory were seen Tuesday near a former penal colony in the town of Olenivka, about 88 kilometers (55 miles) north of Mariupol.

While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word, saying instead that the factory’s garrison had successfully completed its mission of tying up Russian troops and was under new orders.

Ukrainian soldiers are on a bus after being evacuated on May 17, 2022 from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, near a pre-trial detention facility in Olyonivka, in the area under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian soldiers are on a bus after being evacuated on May 17, 2022 from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, near a pre-trial detention facility in Olyonivka, in the area under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, in eastern Ukraine.

AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov

With the departure of the fighters, Mariupol was about to come under full Russian control. Its capture would be the largest city to be taken by Moscow’s troops and would give the Kremlin a much-needed victory, though the landscape has largely been reduced to rubble.

The soldiers leaving the factory were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two cities controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously injured, according to both sides.

It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status. Although both Mariupol and Olenivka are officially part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Olenivka has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and is part of the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Prior to the rebel takeover, Penal Colony No. 120 was a high-security facility designed to hold prisoners convicted of serious crimes.

Footage from The Associated Press showed the convoy being escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, while Soviet flags fluttered from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen on one of the buses.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said the Russian military also detained more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol in another former penal colony near Olenivka. Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians are being held for a month, but those deemed “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police, are being held for two months. Among those detained are about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol while it was under siege, she said.

While Ukraine expressed hope that the fighters would be released, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said without evidence that there were “war criminals” among the defenders and “we must do everything we can to bring them to justice.” bring.”

Russia’s main federal investigative body said it plans to question the troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. Russia’s Supreme Prosecutor has also asked the country’s Supreme Court to classify Ukraine’s Azov regiment as a terrorist organization. The regiment has left to far right.

The operation to abandon the steel mill and the labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers marked the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of both resistance and suffering.

More than 20,000 civilians were killed in the Russian bombardment, Ukraine said, and the remaining inhabitants – perhaps a quarter of the pre-war population of 430,000 in the southern port city – had little food, water, heat or medicine.

During the siege, Russian troops carried out deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater that had housed civilians. Nearly 600 people may have died in the theater.

Gaining complete control over Mariupol, in the south of the eastern Donbas region, would be more of a symbolic boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin than a military victory, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, former head of the French Center for Foreign Affairs. higher army. studies.

“Actually, Mariupol had already fallen,” he said.

But because of the “incredible resistance” of the Azovstal defenders, Ukraine can also claim it came out on top, he said.

“Both sides will be able to be proud or boast of a win – victories of different kinds,” he said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has already compared Ukrainian defenders to the vastly outnumbered Spartans who held out against Persian forces in ancient Greece. “83 days of Mariupol defense will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the twenty-first century,” he tweeted.

McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other AP employees around the world contributed.

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