Russia-Ukraine War: Interrogation, uncertainty for soldiers leaving Mariupol

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia said on Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops surrendered at a huge steel plant in Mariupol, abandoning their tenacious defense of a site that has become a symbol of their country’s resistance, as the battle in the strategic port city soured well as seemed over .

Ukraine ordered militants to save their lives – and said their mission to tie down Russian forces is now complete – but has not called the column of soldiers leaving the plant a surrender. The fighters face an uncertain fate, with Ukraine saying it hopes for a prisoner swap but Russia promising to try at least some of them for war crimes.

It’s not clear how many militants remain inside the fortress, Ukraine’s last in a city now largely in ruins. Both sides try to shape the narrative and carve out propaganda victories from one of the most important battles of the war.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian troops have left the Avozstal plant since they showed up on Monday. At one point, officials put the number of militants holed up in the factory’s extensive network of tunnels and bunkers at 2,000.

If confirmed, the numbers suggest that Moscow may be within reach of claiming that all of Mariupol has fallen. That would be a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war in which many of his plans have gone awry.

But another setback was already looming: Sweden and Finland formally applied to join the NATO military alliance on Wednesday, a move driven by security concerns over the Russian invasion. Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in an attempt to stem NATO expansion, but has seen the strategy backfire.

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

Aside from its symbolic value, gaining full control of Mariupol would also allow Russia to deploy forces elsewhere in the Donbass, the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin now wants to conquer. It would also give Russia an uninterrupted land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it wrested from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a vital port.

For months, soldiers have defended the plant against all odds, but on Tuesday Ukraine’s defense minister said he had given militants a new order to “save their lives.”

“Ukraine needs them. That’s the main thing,” said Oleksiy Reznikov.

What will happen to the fighters now is not clear. At least some have been taken to a former penal colony in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine hopes they can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, and that the negotiations are delicate and time-consuming.

But in Moscow there are increasing calls for a trial against the Ukrainian troops. 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 far-right roots.

The Russian parliament planned to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, Russian news agencies said.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said negotiations to release the fighters were underway, as were plans to pull out others that are still in the mill. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that “the most influential international mediators are involved in the evacuation”.

Mariupol was attacked by Russia from the beginning of the invasion. The city has been largely leveled by constant bombing, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed. But fighters at the steelworks held out as the rest of the city fell under Russian occupation.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol “has caused costly manpower losses in 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 confronted Russian troops who frisked them and took them away in buses.

Others were taken away on Tuesday. Seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers were seen arriving at a former penal colony in the town of Olenivka, some 88 kilometers (55 miles) north of Mariupol.

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.

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.

When its conquest is complete, Mariupol would be the largest city that could be taken by Moscow’s forces. 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.

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.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Russia-Ukraine War: Interrogation, uncertainty for soldiers leaving Mariupol

Chrissy Callahan

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