Interrogation, uncertainty for the soldiers who abandon Mariupol

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia said Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops at a giant steel mill in Mariupol have surrendered, abandoning their dogged defense of a site that has become a symbol of their country’s resistance.as the battle in the strategic port city seemed all but over.

Ukraine ordered the fighters to save their lives – and said their mission to pin down Russian forces was now complete – but did not call the column of soldiers marching out of the factory a surrender. The fighters face an uncertain fate, with Ukraine saying it hopes for a prisoner swap but Russia promising to try at least some of them for war crimes.

It’s unclear how many fighters remain inside the fortress, Ukraine’s last in a city now largely reduced to rubble. Both sides are trying to shape the narrative and extract propaganda victories from what was one of the most important battles of the war..

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian soldiers have now abandoned the Avozstal plant since they started going out on Monday. At one point, officials estimated that 2,000 fighters were locked in the factory’s extensive network of tunnels and bunkers.

The figures, if confirmed, suggest that Moscow could be very close to claiming that all of Mariupol has fallen. It would be a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

But already another setback was looming: Sweden and Finland officially applied to join the NATO military alliance on Wednesday, a decision prompted by security concerns related to the Russian invasion. Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an effort to curb NATO expansion, but saw that strategy backfire.

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

Beyond its symbolic value, taking full control of Mariupol would also allow Russia to deploy forces elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is now determined to capture. It would also give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, while depriving Ukraine of a vital port.

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For months, soldiers defended the factory against overwhelming odds, but on Tuesday Ukraine’s defense minister said he had issued a new order to the fighters to “save their lives”.

“Ukraine needs them. That’s the main thing,” said Oleksiy Reznikov.

What will happen to the fighters now is unclear. At least some were taken to a former penal colony located in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine says it hopes they can be exchanged for Russian POWs and that negotiations are delicate and time-consuming.

But in Moscow, calls are increasing for the Ukrainian troops to be tried. 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 roots in the far right.

Russia’s parliament plans to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, Russian news agencies said.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said negotiations for the release of the fighters were underway, as were plans to pull more from inside the plant. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the evacuation.

Mariupol was targeted by Russia from the start of the invasion. The town has been largely leveled by regular shelling and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. But the steelworks fighters held their ground, with the rest of the city falling to Russian occupation.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine’s Mariupol defense “inflicted costly personnel casualties on 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 troops on the Russian side who searched them and took them away in buses.

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

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.

If its capture is complete, Mariupol would be the largest city taken by Moscow’s forces. During the siege, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity ward and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people may have been killed at the theater.

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.

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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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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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