KYIV, Ukraine — Nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who stayed inside Mariupol’s pulverized steel plant have surrendered, Russia said on Wednesday, as the fighting that turned the city into a symbol of defiance and suffering around the world, a attracted to the close.
Ukrainian fighters who emerge from the ruined Azovstal steelworks face an uncertain fate after their forces are ordered to leave the last bastion of resistance in the now-flattened port city. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in an area controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
While Ukraine said it hoped to bring the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to prosecute some of them for war crimes.
Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Amnesty’s deputy director for the region Denis Krivoshev cited alleged lawless executions by the Russian military in Ukraine and said that Azovstal defenders “should not meet the same fate.”
It was unclear how many fighters were left inside the plant’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 are believed to have been hiding at one point. A separatist leader in the area said no top commander had emerged from the steelworks.
The only plant stood in the way of Russia declaring a complete capture of Mariupol. Its collapse would make Mariupol the largest Ukrainian city to have been captured by Moscow’s military, leading Putin into a war where many of his plans failed.
Military analysts, however, stated that the capture of the city at this point held more symbolic significance than anything else, as Mariupol was already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that had been tied up by the drawn battle. , have already left.
Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said 959 Ukrainian soldiers had left the defenses since they began coming out on Monday.
The video showed fighters carrying their wounded on stretchers and pro-Kremlin pro-Kremlin search pat-downs before being carried to buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the “Z” sign.
In the war-crime case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishmarin, a 21-year-old member of the tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed Ukrainian 62-year-old man in the head through a car window in the early days of the war. Ukraine’s top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become NATO members in a matter of months if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections can be overcome. Each of the 30 NATO countries has an effective veto on new members.
A top ally of Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, has accused Sweden of providing safe haven to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group that is banned in Turkey and on the European Union list of terrorist organizations.
“I want to express very clearly that Sweden will not be able to join NATO unless Turkey’s legitimate concerns are considered,” Altun said in an opinion piece in the Swedish newspaper Expressen on Wednesday.
Sweden has refused to be soft on the PKK.
Mariupol’s defenders clinging to the steel mill for months and, against the odds, prevented Russia from completing its capture of the city and its port.
Its full possession would give Russia a monolithic land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. This would allow Russia to focus entirely on the larger battle for the Donbass in Ukraine’s industrial east.
For Ukraine, ordering fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations that it abandoned soldiers he described as heroes.
“Zelensky may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “Allegations of betraying the Ukrainian troops and voices of dissent are rising.”
He cautioned that there could also be an expected prisoner swap.
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intended to “identify the nationalists” from the surrendered soldiers and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment—among the soldiers who made up the Azovstal garrison—as a terrorist organization. The roots of the regiment extend far and wide.
The Russian parliament was supposed to consider a proposal to ban the exchange of fighters of any Azov regiment, but did not raise the issue on Wednesday.
Mariupol has been a target of the Russians from the very beginning. The city – now reduced to about three-quarters of its former population of about 430,000 – has been largely reduced to rubble from relentless bombing, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed there.
During the siege, Russian forces carried out deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. About 600 people must have died in the theater.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol caused Russian forces “costly personnel loss”.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, moved to expel 85 Spanish, French and Italian diplomats. Russia and several European countries have been evicting each other’s diplomats since the invasion.
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstislav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Bekatoros in Odessa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other Associated Press employees from around the world contributed.
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