Russia-Ukraine War: Russia’s claim of taking Mariupol raises POW concerns

POKROVSK, Ukraine — Russia’s alleged seizure of a Mariupol steel plant, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian obstinacy, gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory in the war he started and caps a nearly three-month siege that the city has been under left in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared death.

After Russia’s Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last of the Ukrainian fighters from the plant’s miles of underground tunnels, concerns mounted for the Ukrainian defenders, who are now prisoners in Russian hands.

Denis Pushilin, the head of a Moscow-backed separatist-controlled area in eastern Ukraine, said on Saturday that Ukrainians, who are viewed as heroes by their fellow citizens, will surely face a tribunal for their acts of war.

“I think a tribunal is inevitable here. I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand from ordinary people, society and probably the sensible part of the world community,” Russian state news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.

Russian officials and state media have repeatedly attempted to characterize the fighters holed up at the Azovstal Steel Plant as neo-Nazis. Among the more than 2,400 defenders of the plant were members of the Azov Regiment, a far-right unit of the National Guard.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to seize Azovstal, which for weeks was Mariupol’s last base of the Ukrainian resistance, thereby achieving Moscow’s long-sought goal of controlling the city, home to a strategic seaport.

The Ukrainian military this week told militants holed up at the factory, hundreds of whom were wounded, that their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

The impact of Russia’s declared victory on the broader war in Ukraine remained unclear. Many Russian troops had already been moved from Mariupol elsewhere in the conflict that began with the February 24 Russian invasion of its neighbor.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special operations base in the Black Sea region of Odessa, as well as a major cache of Western-supplied weapons in northern Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.

In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military general staff reported fierce fighting across much of eastern Ukraine, including Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka oblasts.

Unable to reach and capture Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Russia focused its offensive on the country’s eastern industrial heartland. The Russian-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbass region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory it controls.

Mariupol, which is part of the Donbass, was blocked early in the war and became a horrifying example to people elsewhere in the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.

As the end neared the steel mill, wives of fighters who had held back spoke of what they feared would be the final contact with their husbands.

Olga Boiko, the wife of a Marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband texted her on Thursday: “Hello. We surrender, I don’t know when I’ll get back to you or if I’ll even do it. I love you. Kiss you. Bye.”

Another fighter’s wife, Natalia Zaritskaya, said her husband reported earlier this week that of the 32 soldiers he had served with, only eight survived and most were seriously wounded.

“Now they are on the way from hell to hell. Every inch of this way is deadly,” Zaritskaya said.

The 4.7-square-mile steel mill had been a battlefield for weeks. The dwindling group of outgunned fighters held out with the help of airdrops of supplies and drew Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire before their government ordered them to leave the plant and save themselves.

Russia said the commander of the Azov regiment was taken from the plant in an armored vehicle because of alleged hatred of local residents for him.

No evidence of Ukrainian antipathy to the nationalist regiment has surfaced. The Kremlin has taken advantage of the regiment’s far-right origins to frame the invasion as a fight against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

Russian authorities have threatened to investigate and prosecute some of the steel mill’s defenders for war crimes.

The capture of Mariupol furthers Russia’s bid to essentially create a land bridge from Russia across much of Russia’s bordering Donbass region to the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The city’s capture is also helping Russian leader Putin to offset some painful setbacks, including the failed takeover of Kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy’s flagship in the Black Sea, and the ongoing resistance that has stalled the offensive in eastern Ukraine.

With Mariupol under Russian control, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in the city, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken cover.

Satellite images from April appeared to show mass graves outside of Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians evacuated from the facility amid humanitarian ceasefires spoke out about the horror of the incessant bombardment, the damp conditions underground and the fear they would not make it out alive.

At one point in the siege, Pope Francis lamented that Mariupol had become a “city of martyrs.”

An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who lived there before the war remained. Many were trapped by the Russian siege, left without food, water and electricity.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the steel mill amid humanitarian ceasefires. They spoke of the horror of the incessant bombardment, the damp conditions underground, and the fear that they would not make it out alive.

The chief executive of Metinvest, a multinational company that owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke about the devastation in the city in an interview published in Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Saturday.

“Russians are trying to clean it (the city) to hide their crimes,” the newspaper quoted Metinvest CEO Yuri Ryzhenkov as saying. “Residents are trying to get the city working so the water supply works again.”

“But the sewage system is damaged, there have been floods and there are fears of infection,” he said.

The Ilyich steel mill still has intact infrastructure, but if the Russians try to get it running, Ukrainians will refuse to return to their jobs there, Ryzhenkov said.

“We will never work under Russian occupation,” Ryzhenkov said.


McQuillan reported from Lemberg. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Frances D’Emilio in Rome, and other AP staffers around the world contributed.


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Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Russia-Ukraine War: Russia’s claim of taking Mariupol raises POW concerns

Dais Johnston

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