Fate of 2,500 Ukrainian prisoners of war at steel plant raises concern

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POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — With Russia claiming to have taken nearly 2,500 Ukrainian fighters prisoner from the beleaguered Mariupol steelworks, concerns have grown over their fate as a Moscow-backed separatist leader vowed they would be brought to justice.

Russia has declared full control of the Azovstal steelworks, which for weeks was the last stand in Mariupol and a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the strategic port city, now in ruins with more than 20,000 inhabitants whose death is feared. The seizure gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a much-desired victory in the war he started nearly three months ago.

As the West rallies behind Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda has arrived in Ukraine for an unannounced visit and will address the country’s parliament on Sunday, his office said.

Poland, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war, is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union. With Russia blockading Ukraine’s seaports, Poland has become a major gateway for Western humanitarian aid and weapons entering Ukraine and helping Ukraine move its grain and other agricultural products to the global markets.

The Russian Defense Ministry has released a video of detained Ukrainian soldiers after announcing that its forces had removed the last resisters from the vast underground tunnels of the Mariupol plant. He said a total of 2,439 had surrendered.

Family members of the fighters, who came from various military and law enforcement units, pleaded for them to be granted rights as prisoners of war and eventually returned to Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday that Ukraine “will fight for the return” of each of them.

Denis Pushilin, the pro-Kremlin leader of an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, said captured fighters included foreign nationals, although he did not provide any details. details. He said they were sure to face a court. Russian officials and state media have sought to label the fighters as neo-Nazis and criminals.

“I believe that justice must be restored. There is a demand for it from ordinary people, from society and, probably, from the sensible part of the world community,” Russian news agency Tass quoted Pushilin as saying.

Among the defenders were members of the Azov Regiment, whose far-right origins were seized on by the Kremlin as part of its effort to make the invasion a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

A senior member of the Russian parliament, Leonid Slutsky, said Moscow was exploring the possibility of swapping the Azovstal fighters for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian with close ties to Putin who faces criminal charges in Ukraine, the report reported. Russian news agency Interfax. Slutsky later backtracked on those remarks, saying he agreed with Pushilin that their fate should be decided by a court.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on Russia’s claim to capture Azovstal. The Ukrainian army had told the fighters that their mission was over and they could go out. He described their extraction as an evacuation, not a mass surrender.

The capture of Mariupol advances Russia’s quest to create a land bridge between Russia and the Donbass region to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The impact on the wider war remained uncertain. Many Russian troops had already been redeployed from Mariupol to other parts of the conflict.

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

The Ukrainian military reported heavy fighting across much of Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

“The situation in Donbass is extremely difficult,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “As on previous days, the Russian army is trying to attack Sloviansk and Sievierodonetsk.” He said Ukrainian forces are holding back the offensive “every day”.

Sievierodonetsk is the main city under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region, which together with the Donetsk region constitutes the Donbass. Governor Serhii Haidai said the city’s only functioning hospital only had three doctors and supplies for 10 days.

On Sunday, the British Ministry of Defense said that Russia’s only operational company of BMP-T Terminator tank support vehicles, designed to protect main battle tanks, “probably was deployed on the Sievierodonetsk axis of the offensive of the Donbas”. However, with a maximum of 10 vehicles deployed, “they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the campaign”.

Sloviansk, in the Donetsk region, is key to Russia’s goal of capturing all of eastern Ukraine and saw heavy fighting last month after Moscow’s troops withdrew from kyiv. Saturday’s Russian shelling killed seven civilians and injured 10 others elsewhere in the region, the governor said.

A monastery in the village of Bohorodichne in the Donetsk region has been evacuated after being hit by a Russian airstrike, regional police said on Saturday. About 100 monks, nuns and children had sought safe shelter in the basement of the church and no one was injured, police said in a Facebook post, which included a video showing extensive damage to the monastery. as well as nuns, monks and children. embarkation of the vans on Friday for the evacuation.

Zelenskyy stressed on Saturday that Donbass is still part of Ukraine and its forces are fighting to liberate it.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, he pressed Western countries for multiple rocket launcher systems, which he said ‘stand still’ in other countries , but are the key to Ukraine’s success.

Portugal and Poland, where Costa stopped for talks before heading to Kyiv, support Ukraine’s early entry into the European Union, although some other EU members are reluctant to grant him quick access.

US President Joe Biden on Saturday signed a new aid injection of $40 billion for Ukraine, half of which is for military assistance. Portugal has promised up to 250 million euros, as well as the continuation of deliveries of military equipment.

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.

The coastal steelworks, occupying some 11 square kilometers (4 square miles), have been a battleground for weeks. Drawing Russian airstrikes, artillery and tank fire, the dwindling group of underarmed Ukrainian fighters resisted with the help of airdrops that Zelenskyy said claimed the lives of many pilots. “absolutely heroic” helicopters.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released a video of Russian troops arresting Serhiy Volynskyy, the commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Brigade, which was one of the main forces defending the steel plant. The Associated Press was unable to independently verify the date, location and conditions of the video.

With Russia controlling the city, Ukrainian authorities are likely to face delays in documenting evidence of alleged Russian atrocities in Mariupol, including the shelling of a maternity ward and theater where hundreds of civilians had gathered. refugees. 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.

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

The Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol warned on Saturday that the city was facing a health and sanitation “catastrophe” due to mass burials in shallow graves across the crumbling city as well as the breakdown of sewage systems. Vadim Boychenko said summer rains threatened to contaminate water sources as he pressed Russian forces to allow residents to leave the city safely.

“In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe created by the (Russian) occupiers and collaborators, the city is on the verge of an epidemic of infectious diseases,” he said on the Telegram messaging app.

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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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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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