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Saturday April 13, 2024

Putin visits Mariupol in first trip to occupied territory

Russia besieged Mariupol at the start of its offensive last year, destroying the Azovstal steel works

By AFP
March 20, 2023
This photograph shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), flanked by Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov (R), chairman of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, listening to Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev (L), as he visits the Chersonesos Taurica historical and archaeological park on the 9th anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia on March 18, 2023. — AFP
This photograph shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), flanked by Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov (R), chairman of the Patriarchal Council for Culture, listening to Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev (L), as he visits the Chersonesos Taurica historical and archaeological park on the 9th anniversary of the referendum on the state status of Crimea and Sevastopol and its reunification with Russia on March 18, 2023. — AFP

KYIV, Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise trip to Mariupol, the Kremlin said on Sunday, his first visit to territory captured from Ukraine since the start of Moscow’s invasion.

Just hours after Putin visited Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation, video distributed by the Kremlin showed him landing by helicopter in Mariupol, the port city that Moscow captured after a long siege last spring.

The visit triggered an angry reaction from Ukraine, with a presidential aide blasting its “cynicism” and “lack of remorse”.

The Russian leader took a tour of the city and was seen driving a car. The Kremlin said he visited a rebuilt musical theatre and followed the presentation of a report on reconstruction work.

“We’re praying for you,” a resident told Putin, referring to the city as “a little piece of paradise”, according to images broadcast by Russian state TV, showing the visit took place at night.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the visit was “spontaneous”, adding that Putin’s movements around the city and his meeting with locals were not planned.

He added that the visit took place “very late” on Saturday and in the early hours of Sunday.

It was Putin’s first trip to the eastern Donbas region since he launched the invasion in February 2022, and comes almost a year after Moscow announced the capture of Mariupol after a campaign that saw the destruction of the Azovstal steel works, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the strategic port city.

Mariupol was left devastated after Moscow relentlessly bombarded the city on the shores of the Sea of Azov and subjected it to a brutal siege.

“The criminal always returns to the crime scene... the murderer of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and (its) graves. Cynicism and lack of remorse,” Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said on Twitter.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Twitter Putin visited the city at night “as befits a thief”.

“He watched the ‘rebuilding of the city’... at night. Probably in order not to see the city, killed by his liberation, in the light of day,” the exiled Mariupol city council said on its Telegram account.

The visit comes ahead of a trip to Moscow this week by Chinese President Xi Jinping, widely seen as a diplomatic coup for Putin.

Beijing, a strategic ally of Moscow, has touted the trip as a “visit for peace” as it seeks to play mediator in the Ukraine conflict.

China has sought to position itself as a neutral party, urging Moscow and Kyiv to open negotiations.

But Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.

Putin also met army chiefs including the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin said. He also made a surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday, with Russian state TV showing him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.

The weekend visits came after the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, issued an arrest warrant for Putin over Russia’s alleged deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children during the conflict.

Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict, many of them placed in institutions and foster homes.