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Fear of Mariupol defenders after surrender to Russia


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KYIV/MARIUPOL – On Wednesday, concerns grew for the well-being of more than 250 Ukrainian fighters who surrendered to Russian forces at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol after weeks of desperate resistance.

The surrender ended Russia’s most devastating siege in Ukraine and allowed President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering campaign, which many military analysts say has stalled.

Buses left the steel mill late Monday in a convoy escorted by Russian armored vehicles. Five arrived in the Russian-occupied city of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters would be treated.

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Seven buses carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison arrived at a recently reopened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, a Reuters witness said.

Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters “had laid down their arms and surrendered”, 51 of them seriously injured. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left.

Video from the Russian Defense Ministry shows fighters leaving the factory, some on stretchers, others with their hands up to be searched by Russian troops.

There were some women on board at least one of the buses in Olenivka, a Reuters video showed.

While both sides discussed a deal that would see all Ukrainian troops leave the steel mill, many details were not yet public, including how many fighters were still inside and whether any form of prisoner swap had been agreed.

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The Kremlin said Putin personally guaranteed the detainees would be treated according to international standards, and Ukrainian officials said they could be exchanged for Russian detainees.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Kiev plans to arrange a prisoner exchange for the injured once their condition stabilizes.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky said there was no deal, tweeting: “I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: The #Azovnazis have surrendered unconditionally.”

TASS news agency reported that a Russian commission planned to interrogate the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime.”

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High-ranking Russian lawmakers spoke out against any prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, the Russian lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”

Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated fighters “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

The Azov regiment, founded in 2014 as a far-right voluntary militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist or neo-Nazi. Ukraine says it has been reformed and integrated into the National Guard.

Natalia, the wife of a sailor among those holed up in the factory, told Reuters she hoped “there will be a fair exchange”. But she was still concerned: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”

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On the diplomatic front, US President Joe Biden will receive the leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House on Thursday to discuss their NATO applications, the White House said. The Scandinavian countries are optimistic that they can overcome Turkey’s objections about joining the 30-country alliance.

FIGHT FOR DONBAS

The denouement of the battle for Mariupol is Russia’s biggest victory since it launched a so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24.

It gives Moscow control of the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov and an uninterrupted stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine. But the port is in ruins, and Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people have died in months of Russian bombing.

The Russian offensive in the east, meanwhile, appeared to be making little progress, although the Kremlin says all its objectives will be achieved.

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Ukraine’s military command said Russia continued to shell Ukrainian positions along the entire frontline in the east on Wednesday.

“Towards Kharkov, the enemy concentrated on maintaining its positions and preventing further advance of our troops,” Ukraine’s general staff said in a statement.

About a third of the Donbas was held before the invasion by Russian-backed separatists. Moscow now controls about 90% of the Luhansk region, but it has failed to make a major breakthrough to the main Donetsk cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to extend its control over the entire Donbas.

Ukrainian forces have advanced at their fastest pace for more than a month, driving Russian troops out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

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Ukraine says its troops have reached the Russian border, 40 km (25 miles) north of Kharkov. They have also penetrated at least as far as the Siverskiy Donets River 40 km to the east, where they could threaten Russian supply lines.

Putin may have to decide whether to send more troops and hardware to replenish his weakened invasion force as an influx of Western weapons, including dozens of US and Canadian M777 howitzers that have longer ranges than their Russian equivalents, amplify Ukraine’s combat power , according to analysts.

“Time is definitely working against the Russians… The Ukrainians are getting stronger almost every day,” said Neil Melvin of the RUSI think tank in London.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and a Reuters journalist in Mariupol; Additional reporting by Reuters agencies; Writing by Stephen Coates; Editing by Grant McCool and Lincoln Feast.)

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