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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Ukraine orders surrender of plant, Russia seeks stronger hold in south

Olga Kalashnyk, 39, and Halyna Gundareva, 69, at their housing block in Chernihiv, Ukraine. The building was hit on March 13, killing six people.

By Marc Santora

Hundreds of die-hard Ukrainian soldiers who had made a last stand against Russian forces from a hulking Mariupol steel mill faced an uncertain future under Kremlin custody Tuesday after Ukraine’s military ordered them to surrender.

The surrender directive, issued late Monday, effectively ended the most protracted battle so far of the nearly 3-month-old Russian invasion. Even as Russia has struggled on other fronts in Ukraine, the surrender at Mariupol solidified one of Russia’s few significant territorial achievements — the conquest of a once-thriving southeast port.

Still, Mariupol has been largely reduced to ruin, tens of thousands of its inhabitants have been reported killed, and the city has come to symbolize the war’s grotesque horrors.

By early Tuesday, more than 200 of the fighters ensconced in the Azovstal steel mill, besieged by the Russians for weeks, had surrendered as prisoners of war, evacuated to Russian-held territory aboard buses emblazoned with “Z” — the Russian emblem for what President Vladimir Putin has called his country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities said little about the terms of the surrender except to assert that the Ukrainian prisoners would soon be exchanged for Russian prisoners held by Ukraine.

But Russian officials said nothing about a possible exchange.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s equivalent to the FBI, said Tuesday that investigators would interrogate the captured fighters to “check their involvement in crimes committed against civilians.”

And the prosecutor general’s office asked Russia’s Supreme Court to declare the military unit to which most of the captured fighters belong, the Azov battalion, a terrorist organization. Russian news media has seized on the Azov batallion’s connections to far-right movements to provide a veneer of credibility to the Kremlin’s false claims that its forces were fighting Nazis in Ukraine.

The Russian threats against the prisoners raised questions about the viability of the deal Ukraine had made with Russia to surrender and whether the hundreds of troops still remaining at the steel plant would abide by it.

The surrender, if it is completed, would end the last resistance preventing Russia from full control over a vast sweep of southern Ukraine, stretching from the Russian border to the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized by Russia eight years ago.

Even as Russia’s onslaught in eastern Ukraine struggles, the developments in the south underscore how much territory Moscow has captured and suggest that Ukrainian forces will face steep challenges in trying to regain it.

In other developments:

— Leaders of Finland and Sweden confirmed Tuesday that the Nordic nations would jointly submit their applications for NATO membership this week and would travel to Washington to meet with President Joe Biden. Putin has said that the alliance’s expansion poses “no direct threat to us” but that Russia would respond “based on the threats that are created.”

— After weeks of trying to hammer out a peace deal, negotiators for Russia and Ukraine appear further apart than at any other point in the nearly three-month-long war.

— There is continued concern about the potential for a cholera outbreak in Mariupol, World Health Organization officials said Tuesday.

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