Russo-Ukrainian war: Russia’s assertion of the capture of Mariupol fuels the anxiety of prisoners of war

POKROVSK, Ukraine — Russia’s claimed seizure of a Mariupol steel plant, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity, gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a badly needed victory in the war he has started, ending a siege of nearly three months that left the city in ruins and more than 20,000 residents feared death.

After the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Friday that its forces had removed the last Ukrainian fighters from miles of underground factory tunnels, concern has grown for Ukrainian defenders who are now prisoners in Russian hands. .

Denis Pushilin, the leader of a region in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said on Saturday that Ukrainians considered heroes by their fellow citizens were sure to be brought to justice for their actions in war time.

“I believe that a court is inevitable here. I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand for this from ordinary people, from society and, probably, from the sensible part of the world community” , said Pushilin, quoted by the Russian news agency Tass. as told.

Russian officials and state media have repeatedly tried to label the fighters who holed up in the Azovstal steelworks as neo-Nazis. Among the more than 2,400 defenders of the plant were members of the Azov Regiment, a National Guard unit with far-right roots.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to seize Azovstal, which for weeks remained Mariupol’s last obstacle to Ukrainian resistance, and thus fulfill Moscow’s long-sought goal of control the city, home to a strategic seaport.

The Ukrainian army this week told the fighters holed up in the factory, hundreds of them wounded, that their mission was over and they could get out. He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

The impact of Russia’s declared victory on the wider war in Ukraine remained unclear. Many Russian troops had already been redeployed from Mariupol elsewhere in the conflict, which began with the Russian invasion of its neighbor on February 24.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov reported on Saturday that Russia had destroyed a Ukrainian special operations base in the Black Sea region of Odessa as well as a large stockpile of weapons supplied by the West in the Zhytomyr region of northern Ukraine. There was no confirmation from the Ukrainian side.

In its morning operational report, the Ukrainian military staff reported heavy fighting in much of eastern Ukraine, including in the Sievierodonetsk, Bakhmut and Avdiivka regions.

Since failing to reach and capture Ukraine’s capital, kyiv, Russia has focused its offensive on the industrial heartland in the east of the country. Russian-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbass region since 2014, and Moscow wants to expand the territory under its control.

Mariupol, which is part of Donbass, was blocked at the start of the war and became a chilling example for people in the rest of the country of the hunger, terror and death they could face if the Russians surrounded their communities.

As the end neared at the steelworks, the wives of the fighters who had resisted told of what they feared would be their last contact with their husbands.

Olga Boiko, the wife of a Marine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her husband wrote to her on Thursday: “Hello. We are surrendering, I don’t know when I will contact you and if I will at all. I love you. I kiss you. Goodbye.”

The wife of another fighter, Natalia Zaritskaya, said her husband had reported earlier this week that of the 32 soldiers he served with, only eight survived and most were seriously injured.

“Now they are on the road from hell to hell. Every inch of that road is deadly,” Zaritskaya said.

The colossal steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), had been a battleground for weeks. The dwindling group of underarmed fighters resisted with the help of aerial supply drops, drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, before their government ordered them to abandon the factory. and save himself.

Russia said the commander of the Azov regiment was taken from the factory in an armored vehicle due to local residents’ alleged hatred of him.

No evidence of Ukrainian antipathy towards the nationalist regiment has emerged. The Kremlin seized on the regiment’s far-right origins in its drive to portray the invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the steel plant defenders for war crimes and bring them to justice.

The capture of Mariupol advances Russia’s quest to essentially create a land bridge from Russia through much of the Donbass region bordering Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014 .

Seizing the city also helps Russian leader Putin offset some bitter setbacks, including the failed takeover of kyiv, the sinking of the Russian Navy flagship in the Black Sea, and the continued resistance that has stalled the city. offensive in eastern Ukraine.

With Mariupol under Russian control, Ukrainian authorities may face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in the city, including the shelling of a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had been hiding. .

Satellite images from April showed what appeared to be mass graves just outside Mariupol, where local officials accused Russia of covering up the massacre by burying up to 9,000 civilians.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the factory during the humanitarian ceasefires and spoke of the terror of the relentless shelling, the damp conditions underground and the fear of not being able to survive. come out alive.

At one point during the siege, Pope Francis lamented that Mariupol had become a “city of martyrs”.

It is estimated that 100,000 of the 450,000 people who resided there before the war remain. Many, trapped by Russia’s siege, were left without food, water and electricity.

Earlier this month, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the steelworks during humanitarian ceasefires. They spoke of the terror of the incessant shelling, the damp conditions underground, and the fear of not making it out alive.

The managing director of Metinvest, a multinational that owns the Azovstal plant and another steel mill, Ilyich, in Mariupol, spoke about the devastation of the city in an interview published Saturday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“The Russians are trying to clean it (the city) to hide their crimes,” said Metinvest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov, quoted by the newspaper. “Residents are trying to make the city work, to make the water supply work again.”

“But the sewage system is damaged, there has been flooding and infections are to be feared” by drinking the water, he said.

The Ilyich steel plant still has infrastructure intact, but if the Russians try to operate it, the Ukrainians will refuse to resume work there, Ryzhenkov said.

“We will never work under Russian occupation,” Ryzhenkov said.


McQuillan reported from Lviv. Stashevskyi reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporters Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and other AP staff from around the world contributed.


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