Fears for nearly 1,000 troops who have left Azovstal steelworks

·3-min read
A Ukrainian serviceman is searched by a pro-Russian military official after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol (Russian Defence Ministry/AFP via)
A Ukrainian serviceman is searched by a pro-Russian military official after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol (Russian Defence Ministry/AFP via)

There are fears for the fate of the nearly 1,000-strong Ukrainian force that held out inside Mariupol’s pulverized steel plant for months before surrendering to the Russians.

Footage of the soldiers - many of them badly wounded - emerging from the ruined Azovstal steelworks shows them being searched and put under guard by Russian forces before being driven away.

Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and while Ukraine said it hoped to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some on trial for war crimes.

8Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant (AP)
8Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant (AP)

Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters.

Its deputy director for the region Denis Krivosheev cited executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate.”

For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations it abandoned the men he described as heroes.

“Zelensky may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv.

“There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”

A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.

Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment - among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison - as a terrorist organization citing its roots in the far right.

The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in the southern port city of Mariupol (REUTERS)
The Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in the southern port city of Mariupol (REUTERS)

It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point, and a separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.

The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol and the battle became a worldwide symbol of the suffering and defiance of Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.

Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow’s forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

But military analysts said the city’s capture would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have left the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.

Meanwhile, in a war-crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war.

Ukraine’s top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied.

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