Concerns over the welfare of more than 250 Ukrainian fighters who surrendered to Russian forces at Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol after weeks of desperate resistance grew on Wednesday.
The surrender has ended Russia’s most devastating blockade of the war in Ukraine and allowed President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his weak campaign, which many military analysts say has stalled.
Buses left Steelwork late Monday in a convoy guarded by Russian armored vehicles. Five have arrived in the Russian-controlled city of Novosibirsk, where Moscow says wounded fighters will be treated.
An eyewitness told Reuters that seven buses carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison had arrived at a newly reopened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka, near Donetsk.
Russia says at least 256 Ukrainian fighters have “surrendered with their weapons”, with 51 seriously injured. Ukraine says 264 troops have left, including 53 wounded.
A video from the Russian Defense Ministry shows fighters leaving the plant, some on stretchers, others reaching out to search Russian troops.
As seen in the Reuters video, Olenevkar was accompanied by several women on at least one bus.
Although both sides agreed to an agreement under which all Ukrainian troops would abandon steel operations, many details have not yet been released, including how many fighters are still inside and whether any kind of prisoner exchange has been agreed.
The Kremlin says Putin has personally assured detainees that they will be treated in accordance with international standards, and Ukrainian officials have said that their Russian captives could be exchanged.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk says Kiev aims to arrange for the exchange of prisoners for the injured once their condition stabilizes.
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, said there was no agreement, tweeting: “I did not know that there are so many ways to express a single message in English: #AzovNazis have surrendered unconditionally.”
The TASS news agency reported that a Russian committee planned to interrogate the soldiers, many of whom were members of the Azov Battalion, which Moscow called “crimes under Ukrainian rule” as part of the investigation.
High-profile Russian lawmakers have spoken out against any prisoner exchanges. Russia’s lower house of parliament, State Duma Speaker Bachelaslav Volodin, has said that “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”
Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s leading lawmakers in talks with Ukraine, called the exiled fighters “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.
Formed in 2014 as an extreme right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, the Azov Regiment denies being fascist or neo-Nazi. Ukraine says it has been reformed and integrated into the National Guard.
Natalia, the wife of a sailor stranded at the plant, told Reuters she hoped “there would be an honest exchange”. But he was still concerned: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”
Battle for Donbass
Condemnation of the war for Mariupol, which came as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, is Russia’s biggest victory since it called the February 24 “special military operation” to destabilize the country.
It gives Moscow an uninterrupted control of the Azov Sea coast and eastern and southern Ukraine. The port is in ruins, and Ukraine believes thousands of people have been killed in Russian bombings in recent months.
On the diplomatic front, US President Joe Biden will invite the leaders of Sweden and Finland to the White House on Thursday to discuss their NATO request, the White House said. The Nordic countries are hopeful that they will be able to overcome Turkey’s objections to joining the 30-nation alliance.
Russia’s offensive in the past, meanwhile, appears to be making little progress, although the Kremlin has said all of its objectives will be met.
Prior to the attack, about one-third of Donbass was in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. Moscow now controls about 90 percent of the Luhansk region, but has failed to make major inroads into the main cities of Sloviansk and Donetsk’s Kramatorsk to extend control over the entire Donbass.
Ukrainian forces have been advancing at a rapid pace for more than a month, pushing Russian forces out of the vicinity of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Ukraine says its forces have reached the Russian border 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Kharkiv. They pushed at least 40 kilometers east to the Sivarsky Donets River, where they could threaten the Russian supply line.
Analysts say Putin may decide to send more troops and hardware to replenish his weak offensive force with the arrival of Western weapons, including scores from the US and Canadian M777 Howitzer that strengthen Ukraine’s combat power beyond their Russian counterparts.
“Time is definitely working against the Russians … the Ukrainians are getting stronger almost every day,” said Neil Melvin of the RUSI think-tank in London.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)