Russia’s claim of Mariupol’s capture fuels concern for POWs

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By ELE­NA BE­CA­TOROS, OLEK­SAN­DR STA­SHEVSKYI and CIA­RAN Mc­QUIL­LAN | AS­SO­CI­AT­ED PRESS

 

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Rus­sia’s claimed seizure of a Mar­i­upol steel plant that be­came a sym­bol of Ukrain­ian tenac­i­ty gives Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin a sore­ly need­ed vic­to­ry in the war he be­gan, cap­ping a near­ly three-month siege that left a city in ru­ins and more than 20,000 res­i­dents feared dead.

Af­ter the Russ­ian De­fense Min­istry an­nounced late Fri­day that its forces had re­moved the last Ukrain­ian fight­ers from the plant’s miles of un­der­ground tun­nels, con­cern mount­ed for the Ukrain­ian de­fend­ers who now are pris­on­ers in Russ­ian hands.

De­nis Pushilin, the head of an area of east­ern Ukraine con­trolled by Moscow-backed sep­a­ratists, said Sat­ur­day that the Ukraini­ans con­sid­ered he­roes by their fel­low cit­i­zens were sure to face a tri­bunal for their wartime ac­tions.

«I be­lieve that a tri­bunal is in­evitable here. I be­lieve that jus­tice must be re­stored. There is a re­quest for this from or­di­nary peo­ple, so­ci­ety, and, prob­a­bly, the sane part of the world com­mu­ni­ty,» Russ­ian state news agency Tass quot­ed Pushilin as say­ing.

Russ­ian of­fi­cials and state me­dia re­peat­ed­ly have tried to char­ac­ter­ize the fight­ers who holed up in the Azovstal steel plant as neo-Nazis. Among the plant’s more than 2,400 de­fend­ers were mem­bers of the Azov Reg­i­ment, a na­tion­al guard unit with roots in the far right.

The Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment has not com­ment­ed on Rus­sia’s claim of cap­tur­ing Azovstal, which for weeks re­mained Mar­i­upol’s last hold­out of Ukrain­ian re­sis­tance, and with it com­plet­ing Moscow’s long-sought goal of con­trol­ling the city, home to a strate­gic sea­port.

Ukraine’s mil­i­tary this week told the fight­ers holed up in the plant, hun­dreds of them wound­ed, that their mis­sion was com­plete, and they could come out. It de­scribed their ex­trac­tion as an evac­u­a­tion, not a mass sur­ren­der.

The end of the bat­tle for Mar­i­upol would help Putin off­set some sting­ing set­backs, in­clud­ing the fail­ure of Russ­ian troops to take over Ukraine’s cap­i­tal, Kyiv, the sink­ing of the Russ­ian Navy’s flag­ship in the Black Sea and the con­tin­ued re­sis­tance that has stalled an of­fen­sive in east­ern Ukraine.

The im­pact of Rus­sia’s de­clared vic­to­ry on the broad­er war in Ukraine re­mained un­clear. Many Russ­ian troops al­ready had been re­de­ployed from Mar­i­upol to else­where in the con­flict, which be­gan with the Russ­ian in­va­sion of its neigh­bour on Feb. 24.

Russ­ian De­fense Min­istry spokesman Ig­or Konashenkov re­port­ed Sat­ur­day that Rus­sia had de­stroyed a Ukrain­ian spe­cial-op­er­a­tions base in Black Sea re­gion of Ode­sa as well as sig­nif­i­cant cache of West­ern-sup­plied weapons in north­ern Ukraine’s Zhy­to­myr re­gion. There was no con­fir­ma­tion from the Ukrain­ian side.

In its morn­ing op­er­a­tional re­port, the Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary gen­er­al staff re­port­ed heavy fight­ing in much of east­ern Ukraine, in­clud­ing the ar­eas of Sievierodonet­sk, Bakhmut and Avdi­iv­ka.

Since fail­ing to cap­ture Kyiv, Rus­sia fo­cused its of­fen­sive in the coun­try’s east­ern in­dus­tri­al heart­land. The Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratists have con­trolled parts of the Don­bas re­gion since 2014, and Moscow wants to ex­pand the ter­ri­to­ry un­der its con­trol.

Tak­ing Mar­i­upol fur­thers Rus­sia’s quest to es­sen­tial­ly cre­ate a land bridge from Rus­sia via much of the Don­bas area bor­der­ing Rus­sia to the Crimean Penin­su­la, which Moscow an­nexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine’s pres­i­dent, Volodymyr Ze­len­skyy, ex­pressed grat­i­tude to his U.S. coun­ter­part, Joe Biden, who signed off Sat­ur­day on a fresh, $40 bil­lion in­fu­sion of aid for the war-rav­aged na­tion. Half of the fund­ing pro­vides mil­i­tary as­sis­tance.

Ze­len­skyy, in re­marks to the trau­ma­tized na­tion late Fri­day, de­mand­ed anew that Rus­sia pay «in one way or an­oth­er for every­thing it has de­stroyed in Ukraine. Every burned house. Every ru­ined school, ru­ined hos­pi­tal. Each blown up house of cul­ture and in­fra­struc­ture fa­cil­i­ty. Every de­stroyed en­ter­prise.»

«Of course, the Russ­ian state will not even rec­og­nize that it is an ag­gres­sor,» he con­tin­ued. «But its recog­ni­tion is not re­quired.»

Mar­i­upol, which is part of the Don­bas, was block­ad­ed ear­ly in the war and be­came a fright­en­ing ex­am­ple to peo­ple else­where in the coun­try of the hunger, ter­ror and death they might face if the Rus­sians sur­round­ed their com­mu­ni­ties.

As the end drew near at the steel plant, wives of fight­ers who had held out told of what they feared would be their last con­tact with their hus­bands.

Ol­ga Boiko, the wife of a ma­rine, wiped away tears as she shared the words her hus­band wrote her on Thurs­day: «Hel­lo. We sur­ren­der, I don’t know when I will get in touch with you and if I will at all. Love you. Kiss you. Bye.»

The sea­side steel­works, oc­cu­py­ing some 11 square kilo­me­ters (4 square miles), had been a bat­tle­ground for weeks. Draw­ing Russ­ian airstrikes, ar­tillery and tank fire, the dwin­dling group of out­gunned fight­ers held out with the help of air drops be­fore their gov­ern­ment or­dered them to aban­don the plant.

Ze­len­skyy re­vealed in an in­ter­view pub­lished Fri­day that Ukrain­ian he­li­copter pi­lots braved Russ­ian an­ti-air­craft fire to fer­ry in med­i­cine, food and wa­ter to the steel mill as well as to re­trieve bod­ies and res­cue wound­ed fight­ers.

A «very large» num­ber of the pi­lots died on their dar­ing mis­sions, he said. «They are ab­solute­ly hero­ic peo­ple, who knew that it would be dif­fi­cult, knew that to fly would be al­most im­pos­si­ble,» Ze­len­skyy said.

Rus­sia claimed that the Azov Reg­i­ment’s com­man­der was tak­en away from the plant in an ar­moured ve­hi­cle be­cause of lo­cal res­i­dents’ al­leged ha­tred for him, but no ev­i­dence of Ukrain­ian an­tipa­thy to­ward the na­tion­al­ist reg­i­ment has emerged.

The Krem­lin has seized on the reg­i­ment’s far-right ori­gins in its dri­ve to to cast the in­va­sion as a bat­tle against Nazi in­flu­ence in Ukraine. Russ­ian au­thor­i­ties have threat­ened to put some of the steel mill’s de­fend­ers on tri­al for al­leged war crimes and put them on tri­al.

With Rus­sia con­trol­ling the city, Ukrain­ian au­thor­i­ties are like­ly to face de­lays in doc­u­ment­ing ev­i­dence of al­leged Russ­ian atroc­i­ties in Mar­i­upol, in­clud­ing the bomb­ings of a ma­ter­ni­ty hos­pi­tal and a the­atre where hun­dreds of civil­ians had tak­en cov­er.

Satel­lite im­ages in April showed what ap­peared to be mass graves just out­side Mar­i­upol, where lo­cal of­fi­cials ac­cused Rus­sia of con­ceal­ing the slaugh­ter by bury­ing up to 9,000 civil­ians.

Ear­li­er this month, hun­dreds of civil­ians were evac­u­at­ed from the plant dur­ing hu­man­i­tar­i­an cease-fires and spoke of the ter­ror of cease­less bom­bard­ment, the dank con­di­tions un­der­ground and the fear that they wouldn’t make it out alive.

At one point in the siege, Pope Fran­cis lament­ed that Mar­i­upol had be­come a «city of mar­tyrs.»

An es­ti­mat­ed 100,000 of the 450,000 peo­ple who resided there be­fore the war re­main. Many, trapped by Rus­sia’s siege, were left with­out food, wa­ter and elec­tric­i­ty.

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of Met­invest, a multi­na­tion­al com­pa­ny which owns the Azovstal plant and an­oth­er steel mill, Ilyich, in Mar­i­upol, spoke of the city’s dev­as­ta­tion in an in­ter­view pub­lished Sat­ur­day in Ital­ian news­pa­per Cor­riere del­la Sera.

«The Rus­sians are try­ing to clean it (the city) up to hide their crimes,» the news­pa­per quot­ed Met­invest CEO Yuriy Ryzhenkov as say­ing.  «The in­hab­i­tants are try­ing to make the city func­tion, to make wa­ter sup­plies work again.»

«But the sew­er sys­tem is dam­aged, there has been flood­ing, and in­fec­tions are feared» from drink­ing the wa­ter, he said.

The Ilyich steel­works still has some in­tact in­fra­struc­ture, but if the Rus­sians try to get it run­ning, Ukraini­ans will refuse to re­turn to their jobs there, Ryzhenkov said.

«We will nev­er work un­der Russ­ian oc­cu­pa­tion,» Ryzhenkov said.

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Cia­ran Mc­Quil­lan re­port­ed from Lviv. Sta­shevskyi re­port­ed from Kyiv. As­so­ci­at­ed Press jour­nal­ists Yuras Kar­manau in Lviv, An­drea Rosa in Kharkiv, Frances D’Emilio in Rome, and oth­er AP staffers around the world con­tributed.

LINK ORIGINAL: The Trinidad Guardian

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