Ukraine hopes to exchange steel fighters for Russian POWs

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian fighters extracted from the last stronghold of resistance 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 “justice”.

Russia’s parliament planned to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, which held out for months inside the Azovstal steel plant as Mariupol was under siege, according to news agencies. Russians.

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers entrenched in Azovstal have surrendered this week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday. More than 260 left on Monday, and nearly 700 have since left.

Many are injured, and it is unknown how many fighters still remain in the sprawling steelworks.

Earlier, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said negotiations for the release of the fighters were underway, as were plans to eliminate the fighters still inside the sprawling steelworks. . Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the plans. Authorities did not say how many people remain inside.

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

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an effort to curb NATO expansion, but saw that strategy backfire by pushing the public into Sweden and Finland, from traditionally non-aligned nations, to the western alliance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the nominations, which now have to be considered by 30 member countries.

Mariupol was targeted by Russia in the early days of the invasion. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine had bitterly contested the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it sought to capture a land corridor between its territory of origin and the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. .

“Although Russian forces have surrounded Mariupol for more than 10 weeks, Ukrainian resistance has delayed Russia’s ability to take full control of the city,” the ministry said. “It frustrated his early attempts to capture a key city and inflicted costly personnel casualties on the Russian forces.”

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some seriously injured and taken away on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal factory on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side under a deal brokered by the warring parties. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that 694 Ukrainian troops have surrendered in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 959.

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

While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word and instead said the factory garrison had successfully completed its mission to pin down Russian forces and was under new orders.

With the fighters gone, Mariupol was on the verge of falling under full Russian control. Its capture would be the largest city taken by Moscow’s forces and give the Kremlin a much-needed victory, though the landscape was largely reduced to rubble.

The soldiers who left the factory were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously injured, according to both sides.

It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status. While 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”. Prior to the rebel takeover, Penal Colony No. 120 was a high-security facility designed to hold prisoners convicted of serious crimes.

Footage shot by The Associated Press showed the convoy being escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, as Soviet flags flew from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in 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 are detained for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police, are detained for two months. Among the detainees are about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol as it was under siege, she said.

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

Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview troops to “identify nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor has asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate the Ukrainian Azov regiment as a terrorist organization. The regiment has links with the extreme right.

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

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

During the siege, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people were reportedly killed at the theatre.

Taking full control of Mariupol, in the south of the eastern Donbass region, would be more of a symbolic boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin than a military victory, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of the French center of the superior army. studies.

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

But because of the “incredible resilience” of Azovstal’s defenders, Ukraine can also claim victory, he said.

“Both sides will be able to be proud or boast of a victory – victories of different kinds,” he said.

Already, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has compared Ukrainian defenders to the vastly outnumbered Spartans who resisted Persian forces in ancient Greece. “83 days of defense of Mariupol will go down in history as Thermopylae of the 21st century,” he tweeted.

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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.

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