Russia’s claim to capture Mariupol fuels concern for POWs

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Concern is growing over Ukrainian fighters who have become Moscow’s prisoners at the end of a brutal three-month siege in Mariupol – as a Russian-backed separatist leader is sworn to courts.

Russia has claimed the Azovstal steel plant, which for weeks was the last dam in Mariupol and a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the strategic port city, now in ruins with more than 20,000 feared inhabitants the death.

Its seizure offers Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-desired victory in the war he began in February.

The Russian Defense Ministry has released video footage of detained Ukrainian soldiers after announcing that its forces had removed the last restraints from miles of underground tunnels at the plant.

Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin leader of a region in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said 2,439 people were in custody.

He told Russian state television that figure included some foreign nationals, although he did not provide further details.

Family members of steel mill fighters, who authorities say belonged to various military and law enforcement units, have pleaded for them to be granted rights as prisoners of war and that they eventually be returned to Ukraine.

They are considered heroes by their fellow citizens.

Bus convoys, guarded by Russian armored vehicles, left the factory on Friday.

At least some Ukrainians were taken to a former penal colony, while Russian authorities said others were hospitalized.

(PA graphics)

Mr Pushilin said the Ukrainians were sure to face a court.

Russian officials and state media have sought to label the fighters as neo-Nazis and criminals.

“I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand for it from ordinary people, from society and, probably, from the sensible part of the world community,” Russian news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.

Among the more than 2,400 defenders of the plant were members of the Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins were seized upon by the Kremlin as part of an effort to make its invasion a battle against influence Nazi in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to seize Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last obstacle to Ukrainian resistance.

The Ukrainian army had told the fighters that their mission was over and they could go out.

He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

An end to the Battle of Mariupol would help Mr. Putin offset some serious setbacks, including the failure of Russian troops to take control of Ukraine’s capital kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy’s flagship in the Black Sea and the continued resistance that blocked an offensive. in eastern Ukraine.

It also reinforces Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge between Russia and the Donbass region to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The impact on the wider war remained uncertain.

Many Russian troops had already been redeployed from Mariupol to other parts of the conflict.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported on Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special operations base in the Black Sea region of Odessa as well as a large stockpile of weapons supplied by the West in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine.

Russian servicemen search Ukrainian servicemen after leaving the besieged Azovstal steelworks
Russian servicemen search Ukrainian servicemen after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant (Russian Defense Ministry/AP News Service)

There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.

In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including in the Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka regions.

The Ukrainian army has said that Russia should relaunch an offensive on the strategically important city of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region.

The city is key to Russia’s goal of capturing all of eastern Ukraine and saw heavy fighting last month after Moscow’s troops withdrew from kyiv.

Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, Luhansk region governor Serhii Haidai said the only functioning hospital in the city of Sievierodonestsk only had three doctors and supplies for 10 days.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ruled out the idea of ​​launching a counterattack on Russian territory on Saturday but stressed that the Donbass region remained sovereign vis-à-vis Ukraine.

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(PA graphics)

Speaking at a joint press conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Mr Zelensky said his forces were fighting to “liberate our territory” and the price of “tens or hundreds of thousands of lives” was too high to make it.

He pressured Western countries to launch several rocket systems, which he said “stand still” in other countries, but are “key” to Ukraine’s success.

US President Joe Biden on Saturday signed a further $40bn (£32bn) aid injection for Ukraine, half of it for military assistance.

Portugal has pledged up to €250m (£211m), as well as continued deliveries of military equipment.

Mr Zelensky reiterated his intention to seek membership of the European Union and accused Russia of blocking agricultural exports from Ukraine, known as the “breadbasket of Europe”.

Mariupol, which is part of Donbass, was blocked at the start of the war and became a chilling example for people in the rest of the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.

The seaside steelworks, which occupy about four square miles, have been a battleground for weeks.

Attracting Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of underarmed Ukrainian fighters resisted with airdrops.

Mr Zelensky revealed in an interview published on Friday that Ukrainian helicopter pilots braved Russian anti-aircraft fire to transport medicine, food and water to the steelworks, as well as to recover bodies and rescue victims. wounded fighters.

A “tremendous” number of pilots died during the missions, he said, calling them “absolutely heroic”.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released a video of Russian troops arresting Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant.

The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the date, location and conditions of the video.

With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the shelling of a maternity ward and theater where hundreds of civilians had gathered. refugees.

Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.

It is estimated that 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided in Mariupol before the war remain.

Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.

The Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol warned on Saturday that the city was facing a health and sanitation “catastrophe” due to mass burials in shallow graves across the crumbling city as well as the breakdown of sewage systems.

Vadim Boychenko said summer rains threatened to contaminate water sources as he pressed Russian forces to allow residents to safely leave the town.

“In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the (Russian) occupiers and collaborators, the city is on the verge of an epidemic of infectious diseases,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.

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