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.
Publishing images showing wounded soldiers being carried on stretchers, it said the injured were taken to a hospital in a part of the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.Meanwhile Kyiv said negotiations with Russia on ending the near three-month war, which has killed thousands and sent millions fleeing, were “on hold”, blaming Moscow for failing to compromise.
Ukraine’s defence ministry confirmed the soldiers had left Azovstal, expressing hope for an “exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible”.
For those remaining in the warren of tunnels underneath the steelworks complex, it said it was doing “everything necessary for their rescue” — although a military intervention was not possible.
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.
Ukraine has accused Moscow of war crimes during the conflict, notably in the town of Bucha near Kyiv, where reporters saw at least 20 bodies lying in the streets after Russian forces withdrew in late March.
The International Criminal Court said it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, comprising 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff.
Trying to stay alive
The army said 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.
“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.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2022