Ukrainian soldiers leaving Mariupol could be tried for war crimes, claims Russia

·3 min read
Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Russia claims that nearly 1000 Ukrainian troops at the Azov steelworks have surrendered bringing to an end three months of fighting in the strategic Mariupol port city – hailed worldwide as a symbol of defiance and suffering.

Ukrainian soldiers who left the plant were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

More than 50 of the fighters were seriously wounded, according to both sides.

Ukraine said it hopes for a prisoner swap but Russia has said some could be investigated for war crimes.

Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment as a terrorist organisation. The regiment has links to the far right.

But Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said negotiations for the fighters’ release were ongoing, as were plans to rescue fighters marooned inside the steel plant.

Russia’s defence ministry said that 694 Ukrainian fighters holed up in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks had surrendered over the last 24 hours, RIA news agency reported on Wednesday.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the plans. Officials have not said how many remain inside.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine had bitterly contested the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it sought to capture a land corridor from its home territory to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“Despite Russian forces having encircled Mariupol for over 10 weeks, staunch Ukrainian resistance delayed Russia’s ability to gain full control of the city,” the ministry said.

“This frustrated its early attempts to capture a key city and inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces.”

More than 260 Ukrainian fighters - some of them seriously wounded and taken out on stretchers - left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and turned themselves over to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring parties.

An additional seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the plant were seen arriving at a former penal colony on Tuesday in the town of Olenivka, roughly 55 miles north of Mariupol.

The Russians have called it a surrender but the Ukrainians avoided that word. Instead, Ukraine said the plant’s troops had successfully accomplished its mission to tie down Russian forces and were following new orders.

The exact number of Ukrainian fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status is hard to come by.

While both Mariupol and Olenivka are officially part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Olenivka has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014 and forms part of the unrecognised “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Footage shot by the Associated Press showed that the convoy was escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, as Soviet flags fluttered 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 was also holding more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol at another former penal colony near Olenivka.

Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians are held for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police, are held for two months. The detainees include about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol while it was under siege, Ms Denisova said.

Gaining full control of Mariupol, in the south of the eastern Donbas region, would be more of a symbolic boost for Mr Putin than a military win, said retired French Vice-Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s centre for higher military studies.

“Factually, Mariupol had already fallen,” he said.

But because of the Azovstal defenders’ “incredible resistance”, Ukraine can also claim that it came out on top, he said.

“Both sides will be able take pride or boast about a victory - victories of different kinds,” he said.

Includes reporting by agencies