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Moscow says more Mariupol fighters are surrendering; Kiev is silent about their fate


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May 18, 2022 • 11 minutes ago • 4 minutes read • Join the conversation

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KYIV/MARIUPOL – Russia on Wednesday said nearly 700 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol, but Kiev remained silent on their fate, while a pro-Russian separatist leader said commanders were still holed up in tunnels under the giant Azovstal steel plant.

More than a day after Kiev announced it had ordered its garrison in Mariupol to resign, Ukrainian officials halted all public discussions about the fate of the remaining fighters who had made their last stand there.

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The Russian defense ministry said 694 fighters surrendered overnight, bringing the total number of people who had laid down their weapons to 959. Ukraine’s defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area was quoted as saying by a local news agency that key commanders at the factory have yet to surrender: “They have not left,” the DAN news agency quoted Denis Pushilin as saying.

Ukrainian officials had confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday. But they didn’t say how many were left or what would become of them, and made it clear on Wednesday that there would be no further comment for the time being.

“Unfortunately, the subject is very sensitive and there is a very fragile series of talks going on today, so I can’t say anything more,” said Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko. He said President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks, but did not provide further details.

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“The most important thing is that our boys saved our country, gave us a chance to prepare for this destructive war.”

Negotiations over Mariupol’s surrender came as Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO, bringing about precisely the expansion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of his main reasons for launching the “military special operation” in February.

Mariupol’s final surrender would mean a nearly three-month siege of the once-prosperous city of more than 400,000 people, where Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians died under Russian siege and bombing, many buried in mass graves.

Ukrainian officials have spoken of hopes of arranging a prisoner swap for Mariupol defenders they describe as national heroes. Moscow says no such deal has been made for fighters it calls Nazis.

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Russia says more than 50 wounded fighters have been taken to hospital for treatment and others have been taken to a recently reopened prison, both in cities held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters journalists have filmed buses carrying captured fighters to both locations.

The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender, but high-profile Russian politicians have publicly called for never swapping them, or even until their execution.

FINLAND AND SWEDEN APPLY TO NATO

The Swedish and Finnish ambassadors presented their letters of application for NATO membership at a ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

“This is a historic moment that we must seize,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

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Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say. Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about the new candidate members, especially their tolerance towards Kurdish militant groups on its territory.

Stoltenberg said he thought the problems could be solved. Washington has also downplayed the possibility that Turkish objections would hold back accession.

Finland, which shares a 1,300 km (810 miles) border with Russia, and Sweden were both unaffiliated militarily during the Cold War, and their decision to join the alliance marks the biggest change in European security in decades .

In one fell swoop, it will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia, give NATO control of almost the entire Baltic Sea coast and place NATO guards just a few hours’ drive north of St. Petersburg.

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After weeks of Russia threatening retaliation against the plans, Putin appeared to climb abruptly this week, saying in a speech Monday that Russia had “no problems” with Finland or Sweden, and that their NATO membership would not be a problem unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

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The surrender of the Mariupol steel factory would give Putin a rare victory in a campaign that would otherwise have failed. In recent weeks, Russian troops have left the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and are now retreating at the fastest rate since they were forced out of the north and the vicinity of Kiev in late March.

Nevertheless, Moscow has continued its main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, which it claims has supported on behalf of the separatists since 2014.

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Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, is the largest city Russia has captured to date, giving Moscow complete control of the Sea of ​​Azov and an unbroken patch of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. In any case, the siege was the deadliest battle in Europe since the wars in Chechnya and the Balkans of the 1990s.

The city’s months of resistance became a global emblem of Ukraine’s refusal to yield to a much better-armed enemy, while the city’s near-total destruction demonstrated Russia’s tactics of raining fire on population centers.

Russia, which denies targeting civilians, insists it had previously agreed not to swap prisoners for the Azovstal defenders. Many of the fighters belong to the Azov regiment, a Ukrainian unit with origins as a far-right militia, which describes Russia as Nazis and blames it for mistreating Russian-speakers.

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“I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: The #Azovnazis have surrendered unconditionally,” Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky tweeted.

Russia’s state news agency TASS reported that a Russian commission planned to question the soldiers as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime.”

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder in Kiev and a Reuters journalist in Mariupol; Additional reporting by Reuters agencies; Writing by Peter Graff and Stephen Coates; Editing by Grant McCool, Lincoln Feast, and Nick Macfie.)

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