By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN – Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian last-ditch fighters who had resisted inside the pulverized steel mill in Mariupol have surrendered, Russia said Wednesday, as the battle that transformed the city in a global city symbol of challenge and suffering was coming to an end.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to stand trial by Ukraine for war crimes has pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could face life in prison. And Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t stop at Ukraine.
Ukrainian fighters emerging from the ruined steel mills of Azovstal, which have become the last stronghold of resistance in the city, face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Ukraine said it hoped to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, but Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.
People also read…
It’s unclear how many fighters remained inside the factory’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to have been locked up at one point. The head of a Russian-backed separatist government that claims Mariupol as part of its territory said no senior commander had emerged from the factory.
The steel plant was the only thing preventing Russia from declaring the complete capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the largest Ukrainian city taken by the Russians, giving Putin a boost in a war where many of his plans went awry.
Military analysts, however, said taking the city would have more symbolic significance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and many Russian forces that were tied up in the fighting have already been displaced.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops had abandoned the stronghold since they started going out on Monday.
The video showed the fighters executing their wounded on stretchers and undergoing frisk searches before being taken to buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
In the kyiv war crimes case, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting a 62-year-old unarmed Ukrainian in the head through a car window in the early days of the war. Russia’s chief prosecutor said about 40 more war crimes cases were being prepared.
Diplomatically, Finland and Sweden could become NATO members within months if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reservations can be overcome. Erdogan accused both countries of supporting Kurdish militants. Each of the 30 NATO countries has an effective right of veto over new members.
Defenders of Mariupol clung to the steelworks for months against all odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.
Its complete capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It would also allow Russia to fully focus on the wider battle for Donbass, the is industrialist of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, the plant’s surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to claims that troops he described as heroes have been abandoned.
“Zelenskyy may face some nasty questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who runs independent think tank Penta in Kyiv. “There were voices of discontent and accusations of treason by Ukrainian soldiers.”
A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fail, he warned.
Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview the troops who surrendered to “identify 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 the Ukrainian Azov regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the extreme right.
The Russian parliament was due to consider a resolution banning the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, but did not address the issue on Wednesday.
Mariupol was targeted by Russia from the start. The city – its pre-war population of around 430,000, now reduced by around three-quarters, has been largely leveled by regular bombing, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol was “inflicting costly personnel casualties” on Russian forces.
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other AP staff around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.