Russia calls defenders of Ukrainian steel mills terrorists

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday declared the Ukrainian Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, a designation that could lead to terrorism charges against some of the captured fighters who served their last combat inside the regiment. destroyed steelworks in Mariupol.

Russia and its rebel allies are holding around 1,000 Azov fighters prisoner, many since their surrender at the steel mills in mid-May. Russian authorities have opened criminal charges against them, accusing them of killing civilians. Adding terrorism charges could mean even longer prison sentences and fewer rights.

The sentences for leaders of a terrorist organization would be 15 to 20 years in prison and five to 10 years for members of the group, Russian state media said.

In its decision, the Supreme Court banned the Azov regiment in Russia. It could also ban the regiment from areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces or supported by Russia, if those territories go ahead with plans to become part of Russia.

In a statement, the Azov regiment rejected the decision, accusing the Kremlin of “seeking new excuses and explanations for its war crimes”. He urged the United States and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state, a request made repeatedly by Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy.

Azov soldiers played a key role in the defense of Mariupol, holding out for weeks at the southern port city’s steelworks despite punitive attacks by Russian forces. Zelenskyy hailed them and other factory defenders as heroes.

Moscow has repeatedly described the Azov regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, although no evidence to support this claim has been made public. In May, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office requested that the regiment be designated as a terrorist organization.

The regiment, a unit within the National Guard of Ukraine, has a checkered history. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of several volunteer brigades assembled to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Azov Battalion drew its earliest fighters from far-right circles and drew criticism for some of its tactics. Its current members have rejected accusations of extremism.

The Kremlin seized on the regiment’s far-right origins to portray the Russian invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media repeatedly showed what they claimed were Nazi insignia, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.

Last week, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, including defenders of the Mariupol factory, were killed in an explosion at a barracks in a penal colony in Olenivka, an eastern town controlled by pro-separatists. -Russians. Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other for the blast, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture against prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, the first cargo ship laden with grain to leave Ukraine since Russia invaded more than five months ago approached Istanbul on Tuesday en route to its final destination of Lebanon, testing a deal that Moscow and Kyiv signed last month to unblock Ukraine’s agricultural exports and ease a global food crisis.

It is estimated that 20 million tonnes of grain have been blocked in Ukraine since the start of the war. The UN-brokered deal to free the grain calls for the establishment of safe corridors through mined waters outside Ukrainian ports.

The Razoni, which left the Black Sea port of Odessa on Monday with more than 26,000 tonnes of corn, was due to be inspected in Istanbul on Wednesday by a team of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials, as part of the OK.

Other Ukrainian ships are expected to follow. In Odessa alone, at least 16 other ships, all stranded since the Russian invasion on February 24, have been waiting their turn, Ukrainian authorities said.

Global food prices have soared in a crisis blamed on war, global supply chain issues and COVID-19. While Ukraine – and Russia – are the world’s main suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, the deal itself may not reduce world hunger much. .

Most grain blocked in Ukraine is used to feed livestock, according to David Laborde, an expert at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Only 6 million tonnes are wheat, and only half is for human consumption, Laborde said. He said Monday’s shipment is actually chicken feed.

“A few ships leaving Ukraine is not going to be a game changer,” he said.

The ship’s departure occurred against the backdrop of continued fighting, especially in southern and eastern Ukraine.

In other developments on Tuesday:

— American basketball star Brittney Griner was back in court for her cannabis possession trial. Prosecutors called a narcotics expert who analyzed the substance found in Griner’s luggage. The defense called a specialist who challenged the analysis as flawed. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison, although the United States has offered a prisoner swap in hopes of securing her release.

— A train carrying evacuees from the Donetsk region arrived in Kropyvnytskyi, central Ukraine, triggering what Ukrainian authorities described as a forced evacuation in the east. Authorities plan to evacuate 200,000 to 220,000 people from the Donetsk region before the fall to put them out of harm’s way.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Aya Batrawy contributed from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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