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.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said negotiations over the release of the fighters are underway, as are plans to rescue 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.

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some of them seriously injured and taken away on stretchers – left the ruins of the factory in Azovstal on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring parties. Another 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 and instead said the factory’s garrison had successfully completed its mission. to tie up Russian troops and was under new orders.

“To save their lives. Ukraine needs them. This is the most important thing,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said.

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.

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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 been killed in the theater

Taking full control of Mariupol would give Russia an uninterrupted land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it took from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a vital port. It could also free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is determined to conquer.

And it would give Russia a victory after repeated setbacks on the battlefield and diplomatic front, starting with the failed attempt to storm Kiev, the capital.

However, the Russian victory is more of a symbolic boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin than a military victory, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s Center for Higher Military Studies. He said, “actually, Mariupol had already fallen.”

“Now Putin can claim a ‘victory’ in the Donbas,” Olhagaray said.

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

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

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak compared the 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.

Both Russian and Ukrainian officials said peace talks have been suspended.

Elsewhere across the Donbas, eight civilians were killed Tuesday in Russian attacks on 45 settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.

Zelenskyy said Russian forces also fired missiles at the western region of Lviv and the regions of Sumy and Chernihiv in the northeast. He said Ukraine’s border regions have seen Russian “sabotage activities”.

He said the attacks were “a test of our strength” and “a sort of attempt to compensate the Russian army for a series of failures in the east and south of our country.”

Ukrainian guerrillas have also killed several senior Russian officers in the southern city of Melitopol, the regional administration said on Telegram. Russian troops have occupied the city since the beginning of the war.

The message could not be confirmed immediately. Ukraine has claimed to have killed many Russian generals and other officers during the war. A few of the dead have been confirmed by Russia.

Russian officials in Belgorod and Kursk – two regions bordering Ukraine – accused Kiev of shelling villages and civilian infrastructure along the border, the latest in a series of similar allegations in recent weeks.

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

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