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Russia says nearly 700 Mariupol fighters surrender; leaders are still hiding


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KYIV/MARIUPOL – Nearly 700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered at the Mariupol steel mill in the past 24 hours, Russia said on Wednesday, but leaders are reportedly still inside, delaying the final end of Europe’s longest and bloodiest battle in decades.

Finland and Sweden, meanwhile, have formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the expansion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of his main reasons for launching the “special military operation” in February. .

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Russia’s defense ministry said the surrender of 694 additional fighters meant that a total of 959 people had now deposited their weapons at the massive Azovstal steel plant – the last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in the city.

If confirmed, the Russian announcement would solve much of the mystery surrounding the fate of hundreds of fighters at the factory, as Ukraine announced on Tuesday that it had ordered the entire garrison to resign. Ukraine’s defense ministry, which has so far confirmed that only about 250 people have left the factory, did not immediately respond to a written request 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.

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

Kiev and Moscow had both said on Tuesday that about 250 people had left the factory, with no idea of ​​the fate of hundreds of others who would be inside. Ukraine said it would not reveal how many there were until the bailout was completed.

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.

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.

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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 headquarters.

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

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.

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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.

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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WIN

The surrender of the Mariupol steel plant allows Putin to achieve 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.

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.

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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 insists it had pre-agreed no prisoner swaps for the Azovstal defenders, many of whom belong to the Azov regiment, a Ukrainian unit with origins as a far-right militia, which Russia describes as Nazis and blames for mistreating of Russian speakers.

“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.

TASS news agency 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.”

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.

(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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