The fate of Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol remained uncertain on Tuesday after hundreds of people surrendered and were transported to Russian-held territory.
Russia said on Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered from a last beleaguered stronghold at the steel plant, hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the facility’s defense mission was over and several fighters had been moved to Russian territory.
Russia’s defense minister said that of those who surrendered, 51 were seriously injured and taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, in the breakaway Russian-backed Donetsk region. Their fate remained uncertain.
While Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said that “an exchange procedure will take place for their return home”, Zelenskyy warned that “the work of bringing the boys home.. . requires delicacy and time”.
The speaker of the Russian parliament said he would consider banning the exchange of Russian prisoners of war for captured members of the Ukrainian Azov regiment.
Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, said its members were “Nazi criminals” who should not be included in prisoner exchanges.
“They are war criminals and we must do everything to bring them to justice,” he said.
The Duma’s website said it had asked the defense and security committees to prepare an instruction to that effect.
Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in stalled peace talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated fighters “animals in human form” and said they should receive the death penalty.
“They don’t deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity they have committed and are continuing to commit against our prisoners,” he said.
For his part, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said only that President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that fighters who surrendered would be treated “in accordance with international standards”.
The siege draws to a close
The surrender came as the most devastating siege of Russia’s war in Ukraine drew to a close, ending weeks of fierce urban warfare that left much of Mariupol, a key port city between Russia and Crimea annexed by Russia, in ruins.
As Russia took control of the city, Ukrainian civilians and hundreds of Ukrainian fighters, many of them from the Azov Regiment, sought refuge in the Azovstal Factories, a sprawling Soviet-era factory founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a maze of bunkers and tunnels. resist a nuclear attack.
Most of the civilians at the plant had been rescued in recent weeks after the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross brokered a deal with Russia and Ukraine.
Moscow has portrayed the Azov regiment as one of the main perpetrators of so-called radical anti-Russian nationalism and so-called “Nazism” which it said should protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
Ukraine has argued that the Azov regiment, created in 2014 to fight Russian-backed separatists who had taken control of parts of Donbass, had reformed away from its hardline nationalist origins to be integrated into the National Guard of the country.
The Ukrainian military command called all the defenders of the Azovstal plant “heroes of our time”.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak hailed the defenders of Mariupol, who resisted the Russian advance for 82 days, saying the fighting has delayed Russian plans to seize southern and eastern Ukraine and “changed the course of the war”.
It was still unclear how many fighters, if any, remained at the factory.
While the complete capture of Mariupol would represent Russia’s greatest victory in the war, its invasion failed elsewhere.
More recently, Russian troops around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, have begun to retreat at the fastest rate since Russian forces were driven from the north and outskirts of the capital kyiv in late March. .