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

Kyiv, Ukraine — Ukrainian fighters extracted from the resistance’s last bastion in Mariupol have been 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 Moscow lawmaker said they should be brought to “trial”.

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

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops holed up in Azovstal turned themselves in this week, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday. More than 260 left Monday and nearly 700 have since left.

Many are wounded and it’s not clear how many fighters remain inside the sprawling steelworks.

Earlier, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said negotiations to release the fighters were underway, as well as plans to eliminate fighters still at the sprawling steel mill. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that “the most influential international mediators are involved in the plans”. Officials have not said how many remain inside.

The troops at the waterfront steelworks are the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, which has been effectively in Russian hands for some time.

In an independent development that could tarnish any Russian declaration of victory in Mariupol, Sweden and Finland formally applied to join NATO on Wednesday, a move spurred by security concerns over the Russian invasion.

Buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, escorted by Russian APCs, head to a prison in Olyonivka.
Buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, escorted by Russian APCs, head to a prison in Olyonivka.
AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in an attempt to stem NATO expansion, but saw this strategy backfire, turning public opinion in Sweden and Finland, traditionally non-aligned nations, toward the Western alliance urged.

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

Mariupol was attacked by Russia in the early days of the invasion. Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine was fiercely fighting the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it attempted to seize a land corridor from its home territory to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014 .

More than 260 fighters, some seriously wounded, were withdrawn from a steel plant that is the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol on Monday and transported to two separatist-held cities.
More than 260 fighters, some seriously wounded, were withdrawn from a steel plant that is the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol on Monday and transported to two separatist-held cities.
AP

“Although Russian forces have encircled Mariupol for over 10 weeks, steadfast Ukrainian resistance has delayed Russia’s ability to take full control of the city,” the ministry said. “This thwarted their early attempts to seize a key city and caused costly losses in personnel to the Russian armed forces.”

More than 260 Ukrainian militants – some of them seriously wounded and taken away on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring factions. Another seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the plant were seen arriving Tuesday at a former penal colony in the town of Olenivka, some 88 kilometers (55 miles) north of Mariupol.

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

A Russian military helicopter flies over buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the besieged Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol.
A Russian military helicopter flies over buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the besieged Azovstal Steel Works in Mariupol.
AP

With the withdrawal of fighters, Mariupol was on the verge of falling under full Russian control. Their capture would be the largest city that could be taken by Moscow’s forces and would give the Kremlin a much-needed victory, though the countryside has largely been reduced to rubble.

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

It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status. While 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”. Before the rebels took power, Penal Colony No. 120 had been a maximum security facility designed to hold prisoners convicted of serious crimes.

Ukrainian soldiers sit on a bus after being evacuated from the besieged Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.
Ukrainian soldiers sit on a bus after being evacuated from the besieged Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol.
AP

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 is also detaining more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol in another former penal colony near Olenivka. Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians would be detained for a month, but those deemed “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police officers, would be detained for two months. Those detained include about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol during the siege, she said.

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

Local residents walk past Russian military vehicles in Mariupol, on the territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic.
Local residents walk past Russian military vehicles in Mariupol, on the territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
AP

Russia’s main federal investigative agency said it intends to interrogate the troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov regiment as a terrorist organization. The regiment has ties to the extreme right.

The operation to abandon the steelworks and its maze of tunnels and bunkers signaled the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that made Mariupol a global symbol of resistance and suffering.

The Russian bombardment killed over 20,000 civilians, according to Ukraine, and left the remaining residents – perhaps a quarter of the southern port city’s pre-war population of 430,000 – with little food, water, warmth or medicine.

During the siege, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people may have been killed in the theater.

Soldiers of the militia of the Donetsk People's Republic walk in Mariupol, in the territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic.
Soldiers of the militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic walk in Mariupol, in the territory under the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
AP

Gaining full control of Mariupol in the south of the eastern Donbass region would be more of a symbolic boost than a military victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of the French Center for Higher Military Studies.

“In fact, Mariupol had already fallen,” he said.

But because of the “incredible resistance” of the Azovstal defenders, Ukraine can also claim that it succeeded in the end, he said.

“Both sides can be proud or boast of victories – victories of different kinds,” he said.

The Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak already compared the Ukrainian defenders with the numerically far inferior Spartans who held their ground against the Persian forces in ancient Greece. “83 days of Mariupol defense will go down in history as 21st century Thermopylae,” he tweeted.

https://nypost.com/2022/05/18/ukraine-hopes-to-swap-steel-mill-fighters-for-russian-pows/ Ukraine hopes to exchange steel mill fighters for Russian prisoners of war

JACLYN DIAZ

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