The fall of Mariupol appears within reach; the fighters leave the steelworks

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Mariupol appeared on the verge of falling to the Russians on Tuesday as Ukraine prepared to abandon the steel mill where hundreds of its fighters had stood for months under relentless bombardment in the last stronghold of the resistance in the devastated city.

The capture of Mariupol would make it the largest city to be taken by forces from Moscow and give the Kremlin a much-needed victory, although the landscape has been largely reduced to rubble.

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some of them seriously injured and taken on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal factory on Monday and surrendered to the Russian side under a deal brokered by the warring parties. Seven more buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the factory were seen arriving at a former penal colony in the town of Olenivka, about 88 kilometers (55 miles) north of Mariupol, on Tuesday.

While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word and instead declared that the factory garrison had successfully completed its mission. to pin down the Russian forces and was under new orders.

“To save their lives. Ukraine needs it. That’s the main thing,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said.

The Ukrainians expressed the hope that the fighters would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. But Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said without evidence that there were “war criminals” among the defenders and that they should not be exchanged but tried.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the country’s military and intelligence officers were still working to extract his remaining troops from the sprawling steel mill. Authorities did not say how many people remain inside.

“The most influential international mediators are involved,” he said.

The operation to abandon the steelworks and its maze of tunnels and bunkers marked the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that has made Mariupol a global symbol of both challenge and suffering..

The Russian bombardment killed more than 20,000 civilians, Ukraine says, and left the remaining residents – perhaps a quarter of the southern port city’s pre-war population of 430,000 – with little food , water, heating or medicine.

During the siege, Russian forces launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people are believed to have been killed at the theater.

Taking full control of Mariupol would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and deprive Ukraine of a vital port. It could also free up Russian forces to fight elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern industrial heartland the Kremlin is determined to capture.

And that would give Russia a victory after repeated setbacks on the battlefield and on the diplomatic front, beginning with the failed attempt to storm the capital, Kyiv.

The Russian victory, however, is more a symbolic boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin than a military victory, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, former director of the French Center for Advanced Military Studies. He said: “in fact, Mariupol had already fallen.”

“Now Putin can claim a ‘victory’ in Donbass,” Olhagaray said.

But because the “incredible resistance” of the Azovstal defenders pinned down Russian troops, Ukraine can also claim to have come out on top.

“Both sides will be able to be proud or boast of a victory – victories of different kinds,” he said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak compared the Ukrainian defenders to the vastly outnumbered Spartans who resisted Persian forces in ancient Greece. “83 days of defense of Mariupol will go down in history as Thermopylae of the 21st century,” he tweeted.

The soldiers who left the factory were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses accompanied by Russian military vehicles and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously injured, according to both sides.

It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status. While Mariupol and Olenivka are officially part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Olenivka has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and is part of the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Prior to the rebel takeover, Penal Colony No. 120 was a high-security facility designed to hold those convicted of serious crimes.

Footage shot by The Associated Press shows the convoy being escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, as Soviet flags flew from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in one of the buses.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said the Russian military is holding more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol in another former penal colony near Olenivka. Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians are detained for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police, are detained for two months. Among the detainees are about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol as it was under siege, she said.

Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview troops to “identify nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to appoint the Ukrainian Azov regiment, whose members resisted the terrorist organization Azovstal. The regiment has links with the extreme right.

Russian state news agencies said the Russian parliament would pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment.

A negotiated withdrawal could also save lives on the Russian side, sparing its troops what would almost certainly be a bloody battle to finish off the defenders inside the factory, which spans 11 square kilometers (4 square miles) .

The withdrawal could also work to Moscow’s advantage by distracting the world’s attention from the suffering in Mariupol.

Russian and Ukrainian officials have said peace talks are on hold.

Elsewhere in Donbass, eight civilians were killed on Tuesday in Russian attacks on 45 settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said. Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said a Russian airstrike sparked a fire at a building materials factory. In the Luhansk region, Russian soldiers fired rockets at an evacuation bus carrying 36 civilians, but no one was injured, Governor Serhii Haidai said.

Zelenskyy said Russian forces also fired missiles at the western Lviv region and Sumy and Chernihiv regions in the northeast, and carried out airstrikes in the eastern Luhansk region. He said that the border regions of Ukraine were the scene of Russian “sabotage activities”.

He said the assaults were “a test of our strength” and “a kind of attempt to compensate the Russian military for a series of failures in the east and south of our country”.

Ukrainian guerrilla fighters also killed several high-ranking Russian officers in the southern town of Melitopol, the regional administration said on Telegram. Russian forces have occupied the city since the start of the war.

The report could not immediately be confirmed. Throughout the war, Ukraine claimed to have killed many Russian generals and other officers. A few of the deaths have been confirmed by Russia.

Russian officials in Belgorod and Kursk – two regions bordering Ukraine – have accused Kyiv of bombing villages and civilian infrastructure along the border, the latest in a string of similar accusations over the past few months. weeks.

In other developments, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan, said he had sent a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff to Ukraine to investigate crimes of alleged war.. Ukraine has accused Russian forces of torturing and killing civilians.

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McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa and other AP staff around the world contributed.

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