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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pope Francis meets with wives of soldiers in Azovstal steel plant, pleading for his help

Pope Francis met on Wednesday with wives of soldiers who are still fighting Russian forces from the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

By Elisabetta Povoledo

The wives of two Ukrainian soldiers who have been trapped in the bunkers of the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol for weeks met with Pope Francis on Wednesday and asked for his help to save the lives of the fighters inside.

Kateryna Prokopenko, 27, the wife of Maj. Denys Prokopenko, who is leading the last Ukrainian soldiers in the factory, and Yuliia Fedusiuk, 29, the wife of Sgt. Arseniy Fedusiuk, greeted the pope at the end of his weekly general audience. They asked him to speak to President Vladimir Putin of Russia to “tell him, ‘Let them go,’” Yuliia Fedusiuk later told reporters.

Fedusiuk also said that she asked the pope to come to Ukraine, but Francis has said in recent interviews that he would only travel there after traveling to Moscow. He said he has asked for a meeting with Putin but had not received a reply.

She said the pope told her that he would pray for them. The pope “was very involved in emotion,” Fedusiuk said in a segment that aired on an Italian television newscast.

Later speaking to reporters in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Fedusiuk said that she had been nervous but that it was “a historic moment, and we all hope that it can help save the lives of our husbands and the soldiers at Azovstal.” She said they hoped the Ukrainian combatants could be evacuated through a safe corridor to a third country, like Turkey or Switzerland.

“Russian captivity is not an option,” Kateryna Prokopenko said.

The day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Pope Francis went directly to the Russian Embassy in the Holy See to appeal for peace, and he has repeatedly called for a stop to the violence. But as he has tried to maintain his role as a diplomatic player, he has generally avoided direct criticism of Putin or the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

On Wednesday, the women meeting the pope were accompanied by Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian opposition activist and an unofficial spokesperson for activist group Pussy Riot.

This week, Yuliia Fedusiuk said that there could be as many as 3,000 soldiers still alive in the plant, including 600 injured. On Saturday, Ukrainian and Russian officials said that all the women, children and elderly people who were trapped in the plant had been evacuated, in coordination with United Nations and Red Cross workers.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who has also pleaded for international mediation to assist evacuations, said over the weekend that he hoped to get the wounded and medics out of the steel plant next.

The women told reporters in St. Peter’s Square that the circumstances inside the steel factory were increasingly desperate, and that food, water and medicines were running out. Their accounts echoed those of people who have escaped weeks of living in near darkness of the plant’s underground bunkers, with explosives falling around them and virtually no supplies to survive on.

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