On Wednesday, concerns grew for the well-being of more than 250 Ukrainian militants who surrendered to Russian forces after weeks of desperate resistance at the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol.
The surrender ended the most devastating siege of the Russian war in Ukraine and allowed President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering election campaign, which many military analysts say has stalled.
Buses left the steelworks late Monday in a convoy escorted by Russian armored vehicles. Five arrived in the Russian-held city of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters were being treated.
Seven buses carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison arrived at a newly opened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, a Reuters witness said.
Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters “lay down their arms and surrendered,” including 51 seriously wounded. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, left.
Russian Defense Ministry video showed fighters leaving the factory, some carried on stretchers, others with their hands raised to be searched by Russian troops.
At least one of the buses in Olenivka contained some women, a Reuters video showed.
While both sides spoke of an agreement under which all Ukrainian troops would leave the steelworks, many details were not yet public, including how many fighters were still inside and whether any form of prisoner exchanges had been agreed.
The Kremlin said Putin personally guaranteed the prisoners would be treated according to international standards, and Ukrainian officials said they could be swapped out for Russian prisoners.
Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said Kyiv wants to arrange a prisoner exchange for the wounded once their condition stabilizes.
Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, said there had been no agreement, tweeting: “I didn’t realize English had so many ways of expressing a single message: the #Azovnazis surrendered unconditionally.”
The TASS news agency reported that a Russian committee plans to question the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow is calling “crimes by the Ukrainian regime”.
High-profile Russian lawmakers spoke out against a prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”
MP Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s chief negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated militants “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.
The Azov regiment was formed in 2014 as a far-right volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists and denies being fascist or neo-Nazi. Ukraine says it has been reformed and integrated into the National Guard.
Natalia, a seaman’s wife among those hiding at the factory, told Reuters she hopes “there will be an honest exchange”. But she is worried: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”
On the diplomatic front, U.S. President Joe Biden will receive leaders of Sweden and Finland at the White House on Thursday to discuss their NATO bids, the White House said. Nordic countries are optimistic they can overcome Turkey’s objections to joining the 30-nation alliance.
The resolution of the battle for Mariupol is Russia’s biggest victory since it launched a so-called “military special operation” in Ukraine on February 24.
It gives Moscow control of the Azov Sea coast and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine. But the port is in ruins, and Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people have been killed by months of Russian bombing.
Russia’s offensive in the east, meanwhile, appears to be making little headway, although the Kremlin says all of its goals are being met.
The Military Command of Ukraine said Russia continued shelling Ukrainian positions along the entire front line in the east on Wednesday.
“Towards Kharkiv, the enemy focused on holding their positions and preventing further advance of our troops,” Ukraine’s General Staff said in a statement.
Around a third of Donbass was held by Russian-backed separatists prior to the invasion. Moscow now controls about 90% of the Luhansk region, but has failed to make any major advances toward the key Donetsk cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to extend control of the entire Donbass.
Ukrainian forces have been advancing as fast as possible for more than a month, driving Russian forces out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
Ukraine says its forces have reached the Russian border, 40 km (25 miles) north of Kharkiv. They have also advanced at least as far east as the Seversky Donets River 40 km, where they could threaten Russian supply lines.
Putin may have to decide whether to send more troops and equipment to replenish his weakened invasion force as an influx of Western weaponry, including numerous US and Canadian M777 howitzers, which have longer ranges than their Russian equivalents, is increasing combat effectiveness Ukraine is strengthening, analysts said.
“Time is definitely working against the Russians…Ukrainians are getting stronger almost every day,” said Neil Melvin of the RUSI think tank in London.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/fears-mariupol-defenders-could-be-executed-after-surrender-despite-russian-promises-41661336.html Fears Mariupol defenders could be executed after surrender despite Russian promises