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Ukraine.  Soldiers leaving a steel mill face uncertainty


kyiv, Ukraine –

Russia said on Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops making their last stand in Mariupol have surrendered, drawing ever closer to the end of the battle that has turned the city into a symbol of resistance and suffering.

Fighters emerging from the ruins of the sprawling Azovstal steelworks, taking their wounded with them and leaving dwindling numbers inside the plant, face an uncertain fate. Ukraine says it hopes for a prisoner swap, but Russia has said at least some could be investigated for war crimes.

Russia called the slow but steady abandonment of the resistance’s last redoubt a surrender, but Ukraine avoided the word. It’s unclear how many fighters remain inside the factory’s maze of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to have been locked up at one point. The status of the garrison commanders is also unclear.

Both sides attempt to shape the narrative and extract propaganda victories from what was one of the most important battles of the war.

“There can be only one interpretation: the troops entrenched in Azovstal lay down their arms and surrender,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a Russian soldier facing the first war crimes trial since the start of the war pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing a Ukrainian civilian. Russian Sergeant. Vadim Shyshimarin, 21, is accused of shooting a Ukrainian in the head at the start of the invasion. He faces life imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops had now abandoned the stronghold since they began going out on Monday.

Ministry video showed soldiers carrying their wounded on stretchers and submitting to firm and thorough pat-downs. The troops were unarmed but were not depicted with their hands raised in the air.

Only the plant stands in the way of Russia’s ability to declare the complete capture of Mariupol – a development that would be a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

After failing to invade kyiv at the start of the war, Putin focused on the industrial heartland of Donbass in eastern Ukraine, but his troops are now bogged down there. He faced another setback with the decision of Sweden and Finland to join NATO.

The countries submitted their candidacies on Wednesday, a move hailed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The 30 member countries will now review the applications. Finland and Sweden could become members within months if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reservations can be overcome. Other NATO countries want to act quickly.

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.

The fall of the steel mill would also remove a distraction for Russian military planners who are focusing what remains of their invasion force’s strength on battles elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine.

At least some of the Azovstal fighters who laid down their arms were taken to a former penal colony located in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Their legal status is unclear.

The Associated Press filmed military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign escorting a convoy of buses carrying the troops, as Soviet flags flew from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in one of the buses.

Ukraine says it hopes they can be exchanged for Russian POWs and that negotiations are delicate and time-consuming.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the evacuation.

But Russia’s top federal investigative body said it intended to interview troops 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.

Russia’s parliament plans to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters from the Azov regiment, Russian news agencies said.

Mariupol was targeted by Russia from the start of the invasion. The city has been largely leveled by regular shelling and Ukraine claims that more than 20,000 civilians were killed there. During the siege, Russian forces also launched deadly airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken refuge. Nearly 600 people were reportedly killed at the theatre.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol “has inflicted costly personnel losses on Russian forces.”

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said the Russian army is also detaining more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol in another former penal colony. Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians are detained for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable”, including former soldiers and police, are detained for two months. Among the detainees are about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol as it was under siege, she said.

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McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other AP staff around the world contributed.

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