After Russia claimed to have captured nearly 2,500 Ukrainian militants from the besieged Mariupol Steelworks, concerns over their fate grew when a Moscow-backed separatist leader vowed they would be brought to justice.
Russia has declared its full control over the Azovstal Steel Plant, which for weeks was the last base in Mariupol and a symbol of Ukraine’s tenacity in the strategic port city, which now lies in ruins with more than 20,000 residents dead. The seizure gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-desired victory in the war he started nearly three months ago.
As the West rally behind Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda arrived in Ukraine on an unannounced visit and will address the country’s parliament on Sunday, his office said.
Poland, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees since the war began, is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union. As Russia blocks Ukraine’s seaports, Poland has become a major gateway for Western humanitarian aid and arms shipped to Ukraine, and has helped Ukraine get its grain and other agricultural products to world markets.
The Russian Defense Ministry released video of Ukrainian soldiers being arrested after it announced that its forces had cleared the last remnants of the Mariupol plant’s extensive underground tunnels. It said a total of 2,439 surrendered.
Family members of the militants, who came from various military and law enforcement units, have argued that they should be granted prisoner-of-war rights and eventually returned to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday that Ukraine would “fight for the return of each and every one of them”.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin head of an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said some foreign nationals were among the captured militants, although he gave no details. He said they would certainly be brought to justice. Russian officials and state media have tried to characterize the fighters as neo-Nazis and criminals.
“I believe that justice must be restored. There is a request from ordinary people, society and probably the sensible part of the world community,” Russian state news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.
Among the defenders were members of the Azov regiment, whose far-right origins have been seized upon by the Kremlin as part of its effort to portray the invasion as a fight against Nazi influence in Ukraine.
A prominent member of Russia’s parliament, Leonid Slutsky, said Moscow is studying the possibility of swapping the Azovstal militants for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian with close ties to Putin who faces criminal prosecution in Ukraine, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. Slutsky later went back to those remarks and said he agreed with Pushilin that her fate should be decided by a tribunal.
The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to capture Azovstal. The Ukrainian military had told the fighters that their mission was complete and they could come out. It described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.
The capture of Mariupol fuels Russia’s bid to create a land bridge from Russia through the Donbass region to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The impact on the wider war remained unclear. Many Russian troops had already been moved from Mariupol to other sites of the conflict.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported Saturday that Russia has a Ukrainian special operations base near Odessa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, as well as a significant cache of western-supplied weapons in the Zhytomyr region to the north of Ukraine have destroyed. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.
The Ukrainian military reported heavy fighting in large parts of the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.
“The situation in Donbass is extremely difficult,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “As in the past few days, the Russian army is trying to attack Sloviansk and Sievierodonetsk.” He said Ukrainian forces are holding back the offensive “every day”.
Sievierodonetsk is the main city under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region, which together with the Donetsk region forms the Donbass. Governor Serhii Haidai said the only functioning hospital in the city only has three doctors and supplies for 10 days.
Sloviansk in the Donetsk region is crucial to Russia’s goal of conquering all of eastern Ukraine and saw fierce fighting last month after Moscow’s forces withdrew from Kyiv. Russian shelling on Saturday killed seven civilians and injured 10 others elsewhere in the region, the governor said.
A monastery in the village of Bohorodichne in the Donetsk region was evacuated after it was hit by a Russian airstrike, regional police said on Saturday. About 100 monks, nuns and children had taken safe shelter in the church’s basement and no one was injured, police said in a Facebook post that included video showing extensive damage to the monastery and nuns, monks and children boarding in vans on Friday for evacuation.
Zelenskyi stressed on Saturday that Donbass remains part of Ukraine and his troops are fighting for its liberation.
At a joint press conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, he urged Western countries towards multi-launch missile systems, which he said “just stand still” in other countries but are key to Ukraine’s success.
Portugal and Poland, where Costa stopped for talks before continuing to Kyiv, support Ukraine’s speedy accession to the European Union, although some other EU members are reluctant to grant it speedy accession.
US President Joe Biden on Saturday signed a new $40 billion aid shipment to Ukraine, half of it for military aid. Portugal pledged up to 250 million euros and further deliveries of military equipment.
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.
The seaside steel mill, which occupies about 11 square kilometers (4 sq mi), was a battlefield for weeks. Attracting Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling squad of Ukrainian fighter jets held off with the help of airdrops that Zelenskyy said claimed the lives of many “absolutely heroic” helicopter pilots.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released video of Russian troops taking into custody Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant. The Associated Press has not been able to independently verify the video’s date, location, and conditions.
With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater where hundreds of 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.
An estimated 100,000 of the 450,000 people who lived in Mariupol before the war remained. Many were trapped by the Russian siege, left without food, water and electricity.
The Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol on Saturday warned that the city is facing a “disaster” in health and sanitation amid mass burials in shallow pits in the devastated city and the collapse of sewage systems. Vadim Boychenko said summer rains threatened to contaminate water sources as he urged Russian forces to allow residents to safely leave the city.
“In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the (Russian) occupiers and collaborators, the city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” he said on the messaging app Telegram.
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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https://www.independent.co.uk/news/ap-mariupol-russia-vladimir-putin-moscow-b2084528.html The fate of 2,500 Ukrainian prisoners of war from a steel mill is causing concern