Russia said on Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian troops had surrendered after their last stop at the besieged Azvastal steelworks in Mariupol, prompting calls for a prisoner exchange in Kiev.
Moscow claimed control of the strategic port city last month after a week-long blockade, but hundreds of Ukrainian troops are trapped in tunnels beneath the huge Azovstal industrial zone.
“In the last 24 hours, 275 militants have dropped their weapons and surrendered, of which 51 have been seriously injured,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The wounded were taken to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels, according to the release.
Elsewhere, Finnish lawmakers – who share a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia – have overwhelmingly voted to join the NATO military alliance.
The vote paves the way for a joint petition with Sweden on Wednesday, amid fears that they could be Russia’s next target.
Kyiv, meanwhile, said talks with Russia about ending nearly three months of war, which had killed thousands and forced millions to flee, were “stable” and blamed Moscow for failing to compromise.
– ICC Installation –
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has confirmed that troops have left Azvastal, hoping for a “exchange mechanism … to bring these Ukrainian heroes back to the country as soon as possible.”
For those left in the tunnel warren under the steelwork, it said it was doing “everything necessary to rescue them” – although military intervention was not possible.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer questions about whether Azovstal soldiers would be treated as war criminals or prisoners of war.
He said President Vladimir Putin had “assured them that they would be treated in accordance with relevant international law.”
Ukraine has blamed Moscow for war crimes during the conflict, particularly in the town of Bucha near Kiev, where AFP reporters saw at least 20 bodies lying on the streets after Russian troops withdrew in late March.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Tuesday that it was deploying its largest ever field team in Ukraine, consisting of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support personnel.
– ‘Trying to survive’ –
Ukraine’s military says the seizure of steelworks has delayed the transfer of 20,000 Russian troops to other parts of the country and prevented Moscow from rapidly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhia.
Referring to the Spartans’ last stand against the Persians in 480 BC, presidential aide Mikhail Podoliak said, “Mariupol will descend into the 83-day history of the defense as the 21st century thermopile.”
Ukrainian forces, protected by arms and cash from Western allies, have been able to fight the huge Russian army for longer than many expected.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian opposition Volodymyr Zelensky by telephone on Tuesday that arms supplies from Paris would “intensify” in the coming weeks.
Zelensky said the two leaders also discussed energy supplies to Ukraine, ways for Ukraine to export agricultural products, and Kiev’s application to join the European Union, which Macron said could take decades.
After encircling the capital Kyiv in the first week of the war, Moscow has increasingly focused on the eastern part of the Donbass.
Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are withdrawing from around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and will be re-deployed there.
But Kiev’s profits have come at a much higher cost, with villages bombed and destroyed.
Just north of Kharkiv, in Ruska Lojova, Rostislav Stepanenko described to AFP how he returned to collect some items but returned empty-handed and was stunned by the incessant artillery shelling.
Asked what he did for a living, he joked that he was “trying to survive.”
– ‘Shelling without stopping’ –
Ukraine says Russia is targeting the Donbass region, including the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk.
Severodonetsk’s control would give the Kremlin control of Lugansk’s de facto control, one of two regions – with Donetsk – consisting of Donbass.
Russia’s attempt to completely encircle Severodonetsk has been rejected, with Ukrainian forces blowing up railway bridges to slow their advance.
But Sergei Gade, Lugansk’s regional governor, said the shelling was “non-stop” and that two buildings at the city’s General Hospital had been hit overnight.
“We have 10 people killed and three injured in this area,” he wrote in the Telegram.
Elsewhere, eight people were killed and 12 wounded in a Russian attack on the village of Desna in the northeastern Chernigiv region, where Ukrainian military bases are located, emergency services said.
In addition to mourning the victims of the recent war, Ukraine on Tuesday held a solemn funeral in Kiev for Leonid Kravchuk, who died this month at the age of 88 and led Ukraine to independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The impassioned Zelensky laid a wreath at Kravchuk’s coffin, painted with a Ukrainian flag, while the soldiers guarded the casket and a large portrait of Kravchuk stood behind them.
– New NATO Bid –
Fearing Russia’s ambitions, Sweden and Finland are ready to abandon decades of military neutrality and join NATO.
Their bids must be approved unanimously by the alliance’s 30 countries, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected, accusing the Nordic countries of harboring terrorist groups.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has expressed confidence that the bids will be successful and is scheduled to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Washington on Wednesday.
Western nations have also sought to punish Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions, with the EU considering imposing sanctions on Russia’s oil.
Hungary is blocking sanctions, citing costs, and Putin on Tuesday claimed that Europe risked “economic suicide”.
Many EU countries are also dependent on Russian gas but are confused after Moscow demanded payments in rubles to avoid sanctions.
Gasum, Finland’s state-owned gas company, said on Tuesday that Russia could cut off gas supplies to the Nordic nation for refusing to pay Gazprom in rubles. Russia has already cut off electricity supplies to Finland.
Italian power giant Anne on Tuesday announced a possible solution involving the opening of two accounts at the bank of the Russian power company Gazprom. It has proposed to pay in euros which will be converted into rubles via the Moscow Stock Exchange.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)