KYIV, Ukraine – The battle that made Mariupol a global symbol of challenge and suffering draws to a close as Russia says nearly 1,000 Ukrainian last-ditch fighters who held out inside a pulverized steelworks had surrendered.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to stand trial by Ukraine for war crimes pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing a civilian and could face life in prison. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality lest Russian President Vladimir Putin stop short of Ukraine.
Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the crumbling steelworks of Azovstal after being ordered by their military to abandon the last bastion of resistance in the now razed port city face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
While Ukraine has said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia has threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.
Amnesty International said the Red Cross should have immediate access to combatants. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cited illegal executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said Azovstal defenders “must not suffer the same fate”.
It is unclear how many fighters remained inside the factory’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to have been locked up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no senior commander had emerged from the steelworks.
The factory was the only thing preventing Russia from declaring the complete capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the largest Ukrainian city to be taken by forces from Moscow, giving Putin a boost in a war where many of his plans went awry.
Military analysts, however, said capturing the city at this point would have more symbolic significance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were bound by the endless fights are already gone.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops had abandoned the stronghold since they started going out on Monday.
The video showed the fighters executing their wounded on stretchers and undergoing frisk searches before being taken to buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
The United States has collected intelligence that shows some Russian officials fear Kremlin forces in Mariupol are committing abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the cases. conclusions.
Russian officials fear the abuse will further spur residents to resist the occupation and that the treatment will run counter to Russia’s claims that its military freed Russian-speakers, according to the official, who was not not allowed to comment.
Resistance fighting was reported in the occupied southern city of Melitopol, where the regional military administration said Ukrainians had killed several high-ranking Russian officers and a Russian armored train carrying troops and ammunition had spilled, causing the ammunition to explode.
The administration said on Telegram that the Russian army does not maintain the tracks and overloads the trains, and “with the help” of the resistance fighters the train derailed. Reports cannot be independently confirmed.
In a sign of normalcy in Kyiv, the US Embassy reopened on Wednesday, a month after Russian forces abandoned their attempt to seize the capital and three months after the front- post. A dozen embassy employees solemnly witnessed the raising of the American flag. Other Western countries have also reopened their embassies in Kyiv.
In the kyiv war crimes case, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting a 62-year-old unarmed Ukrainian in the head through a car window in the early days of the war. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said about 40 more war crimes cases were being prepared.
Diplomatically, Finland and Sweden could become NATO members within months, although objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt matters. Turkey accuses the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.
Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, said there would be “no progress” on membership applications unless Turkey’s concerns were met. Each of the 30 NATO countries has an effective right of veto over new members.
The defenders of Mariupol clung to the steelworks for months against all odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.
Its complete capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It would also allow Russia to fully focus on the wider battle for Donbass, the is industrialist of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, the order for fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations that it has abandoned troops it has described as heroes.
“Zelenskyy may face some nasty questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who runs independent think tank Penta in Kyiv. “There were voices of discontent and accusations of treason by Ukrainian soldiers.”
A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fail, he warned.
Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview the troops who surrendered to “identify nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
In addition, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate the Ukrainian Azov regiment – among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison – as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the extreme right.
The Russian parliament was due to consider a resolution banning the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, but did not address the issue on Wednesday.
Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the start. The city – its pre-war population of around 430,000 now reduced by around three-quarters – has been largely reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians there were killed.
In other developments, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Russia had started using a prototype of a new laser weapon in Ukraine capable of hitting a target 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, the report said. state news agency Tass on national television. He said he was tested against a drone on Tuesday and incinerated him in five seconds.
Borisov said a new generation of laser weapons will eventually allow Russia to retain its expensive long-range missiles.
Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelenskyy compared Russian boastfulness to Nazi Germany’s claims of the Wunderwaffe, or miracle weapons, as the tide began to turn in World War II.
A senior US defense official said on Wednesday that the US had seen nothing to back up those claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military assessment.
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Aamer Madhani in Washington and other AP staff from around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine