Tensions over fighters captured in Mariupol, as Russia threatens possible trials

War Day 84 Updates

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian last-ditch fighters who had resisted inside the pulverized steelworks of Mariupol have surrendered, Russia said on Wednesday, as the battle that made the city a global symbol of defiance and of suffering was coming to an end.

Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to stand trial by Ukraine for war crimes has pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could face life in prison. And Finland and Sweden have asked to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t stop at Ukraine.

Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the crumbling steelworks of Azovstal after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now razed port city face an uncertain fate.

Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

While Ukraine has said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia has threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

Amnesty International said the Red Cross should have immediate access to combatants.

On Wednesday, a cat walks past part of the damaged Mariupol steelworks. The city – its pre-war population of around 430,000 has now been reduced by around three-quarters – was largely reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cited illegal executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said Azovstal defenders “must not suffer the same fate”.

Symbolic importance for Russia

It’s unclear how many fighters remained inside the factory’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to have been locked up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no senior commander had emerged from the steelworks.

WATCH | An uncertain future for Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Mariupol plant:

Uncertain fate for Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Mariupol plant

A week-long siege of the Mariupol steelworks by Russian forces has come to an end, with the remaining Ukrainian soldiers surrendering from their last stronghold in the city. Ukraine says its soldiers will be swapped in a prison swap, but the Kremlin accuses them of being war criminals, promising to bring them to justice.

The factory was the only thing preventing Russia from declaring the complete capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the largest Ukrainian city to be taken by forces from Moscow, giving Putin a boost in a war where many of his plans went awry.

Military analysts, however, said capturing the city at this point would have more symbolic significance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control, and most of the Russian forces that were bound by the endless fights are already gone.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops had abandoned the stronghold since they started going out on Monday.

The video showed the fighters executing their wounded on stretchers and undergoing frisk searches before being taken to buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.

A Ukrainian main battle tank rolls down a street in Severodonetsk, Ukraine on Wednesday during a nearby mortar bombardment. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Possible political concerns for Kyiv

For Ukraine, the order for fighters to surrender could leave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations that it has abandoned troops it has described as heroes.

“Zelensky may face some nasty questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent think tank Penta in Kyiv. “There were voices of discontent and accusations of treason by Ukrainian soldiers.”

Rescuers work Wednesday at the site of a building destroyed by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Andriy Andriyenko/Associated Press)

A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fail, he warned.

Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview the troops who surrendered to “identify nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate the Ukrainian Azov regiment – ​​among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison – as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the extreme right.

The Russian parliament was due to consider a resolution banning the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, but did not address the issue on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, men walk past a building in Soledar, Ukraine, after it was damaged by Russian shelling. (Andriy Andriyenko/Associated Press)

Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the start of the war, which began on February 24. The city – its pre-war population of around 430,000 now reduced by around three-quarters – has been largely reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians there were killed.

During the siege, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people were reportedly killed at the theatre.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol was “inflicting costly personnel casualties” on Russian forces.

A man sits next to his horse during a nearby mortar bombardment in Severodonetsk on Wednesday. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Reported targeting of an armored train

Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force said on Wednesday that Ukrainian fighters blew up an armored train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.

Reuters could not independently verify the claim. The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

The town of Melitopol, in the Zaporizhzhia region, lies in a belt of land in southern Ukraine that was occupied by Russian forces after their invasion on February 24.

Ukraine’s Territorial Defence, the reserve branch of the armed forces, said an explosive device detonated directly under a cart carrying servicemen.

Their statement, posted on Facebook, did not specify the extent of the damage.

The United States reopens its embassy in Kyiv

In other developments, the US Embassy reopened in Kyiv on Wednesday, a month after Russian forces abandoned their attempt to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed.

A dozen embassy employees solemnly witnessed the raising of the American flag.

A woman walks her dog outside the US Embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

“The people of Ukraine, with our security assistance, defended their homeland from the unreasonable invasion of Russia and therefore the stars and stripes once again fly over the embassy,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement. .

Other Western countries have also reopened their embassies in Kyiv.

Russia, meanwhile, decided to expel 85 Spanish, French and Italian diplomats. Russia and a host of European countries have hunted each other’s diplomats since the invasion.