KYIV: Russia said on Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered after staging a last stand at the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, prompting Kyiv to call for a prisoner...
KYIV: Russia said on Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered after staging a last stand at the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, prompting Kyiv to call for a prisoner exchange.
Moscow claimed control of the strategic port city of Mariupol last month after a weeks-long siege, but hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers remained holed up in underground tunnels beneath the huge Azovstal industrial zone.
"Over the past 24 hours, 265 militants laid down their arms and surrendered, including 51 heavily wounded," the Russian defence ministry said. It added that those needing medical help were taken to a hospital in a part of the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.
The ministry published images showing wounded soldiers being carried on stretchers, some being searched and others being boarded onto buses. Elsewhere, lawmakers in Finland -- which shares a 1,300-km border with Russia -- voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Nato military alliance.
It paves the way for a joint application with Sweden to be submitted in the coming days, amid fears they could be next after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has killed thousands and sent millions fleeing.
Ukraine earlier said 264 fighters from Azovstal were evacuated to Russia-controlled territory, including 53 wounded. On Tuesday, the defence ministry expressed hope of an "exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible".
For those still in Azovstal, it said it was doing "everything necessary for their rescue", although it said a military intervention was not possible. The fate of the soldiers remains unclear and is likely to cause concern in Ukraine, which has accused Moscow of war crimes during the conflict.
The International Criminal Court said on Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, comprising 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer questions about whether the Azovstal soldiers would be treated as war criminals or prisoners of war.
President Vladimir Putin "guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws," he said. Separately, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said that "Nazi criminals should not be subject to a prisoner exchange".
He did not mention Azovstal in particular, but Moscow has on numerous occasions said that members of the Azov Battalion -- considered "Nazi" by Russian authorities -- are among those trapped at the steelworks.
Ukraine hailed the soldiers’ contribution to the wider fight following Russia’s invasion on February 24. Holding the steelworks had delayed the transfer of 20,000 Russian troops to other parts of Ukraine and stopped Moscow from quickly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, the army said.
"Azovstal defenders ruined Russia’s plan to capture the east of Ukraine... This completely changed the course of the war," tweeted presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak. "83 days of Mariupol defence will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the 21st century," he said, referring to the famous last stand by the Spartans against the Persians in 480 BCE.
Despite the resources of its giant neighbour, Ukraine has managed to repel the Russian army for longer than many expected, fortified by weapons and cash from Western allies. After circling the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow has focused increasingly on the eastern region of Donbas, bordering Russia.
Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are withdrawing from around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, to be redeployed to Donbas, and Kyiv on Monday claimed control of territory on the border.
Meanwhile, western countries have been ramping up weapons and ammunition shipments to Ukraine as Kyiv fights off a Russian invasion, but arms trade experts warn some of the lethal assistance could end up falling into the wrong hands. Ukraine in particular has a history as a hub of the arms trade during the 1990s, setting off alarm bells for those who study illicit flows.