• The San Juan Daily Star

Russia says nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol steel plant have surrendered

Ukrainian servicemen in a bus after they were evacuated from Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant on Tuesday. They are now in Russian custody and their futures are unclear.

By Ivan Nechepurenko

Russia said Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol had surrendered to Russian forces, though their fate remained uncertain, with Ukraine promising their eventual swap in a prisoner exchange amid calls in Moscow to have them tried in court.

The surrender of some of Ukraine’s most die-hard fighters — who held out beneath the sprawling steel factory for weeks under heavy bombardment — in effect ended the longest and most devastating battle of the war so far. It also offered Russia an opportunity to present a victory at a time when some pro-Russian commentators have begun to voice frustration over the army’s miscalculations and slow progress in the war.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that 694 members of the Ukrainian army and the Azov battalion, which belongs to the country’s national guard, had surrendered over the past 24 hours, bringing the overall number of surrendered fighters to 959. There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian government.

A video published Wednesday by Zvezda, a Russian Defense Ministry television channel, appeared to show Russian soldiers on a road littered with debris checking bags of Ukrainian fighters, some of them visibly wounded.

The ministry did not specify where the latest batch of fighters had been taken. Ukraine’s General Staff said earlier that its soldiers had been transported to two Ukrainian towns that are under Russian control.

The Russian statement also offered no clarity over what will happen next. In particular, the fate of members of the Azov battalion, the Ukrainian group whose far-right links have offered a veneer of credibility to Russia’s false claims that its army was fighting Nazis in Ukraine, carries an outsized symbolic weight for both sides in the war. In his February speech announcing the start of the invasion, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia would “seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians.”

Amnesty International on Wednesday demanded that the Red Cross be given immediate access to the Ukrainian fighters from Mariupol who are now in Russian hands. The agency said it had “serious concerns about their fate as prisoners of war,” in part because they had been dehumanized in the Russian news media.

On Tuesday, Russian officials paved the way for what some fear will turn into a show trial.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, said the legislative body would discuss the ban of “exchanges of Nazi criminals.” The Russian prosecutor general asked the country’s Supreme Court to declare the Azov brigade a “terrorist organization,” and the court scheduled a hearing on the issue for May 26, the Russian Justice Ministry said in a statement.

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.”

The swift Russian moves have raised questions about the parameters and durability of the surrender terms negotiated between Moscow and Kyiv, and about whether all of the fighters remaining in the steel factory’s sprawling nuclear shelters will abide by it.

On Tuesday, Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said that moves by Russian lawmakers to ban a prisoner exchange were “a political statement aimed at the internal propaganda and internal political processes in Russia.”

She said the negotiations and an operation to rescue the soldiers, who are widely seen as heroes in Ukraine, were continuing. She also praised their role in pinning down and damaging Russian forces long enough in Mariupol to ensure that they could not swiftly redeploy to join battles elsewhere in Ukraine.

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