By Orhan Coskun, Jonathan Spicer and Can Sezer
ISTANBUL – NATO member Turkey has proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of wounded fighters holed up in a steel works in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said on Saturday.
Ibrahim Kalin told Reuters in an interview that he had personally discussed the proposal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv two weeks ago and that it remains “on the table” although Moscow has not agreed to it.
Under the plan, people evacuated from the vast Azovstal steel plant would be taken by land to the port of Berdyansk, which like Mariupol is on the Sea of Azov, and a Turkish vessel would take them across the Black Sea to Istanbul, he said.
“If it can be done that way, we are happy to do it. We are ready. In fact our ship is ready to go and bring the injured soldiers and other civilians to Turkey,” said Kalin, who is also Erdogan’s top foreign policy adviser.
Ukraine and Russia did not immediately comment on the possibility of an evacuation by sea.
After weeks of Russian siege and bombardment, Mariupol is in Russian hands, but hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are holding out under heavy fire at the steel works.
A number of civilians who were sheltering in the plant were evacuated this month with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. Turkey’s proposal included evacuating the civilians who were still there.
Zelenskiy has said complex talks are under way to evacuate a large number of wounded soldiers from the steel works in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.
Russia, which initially said the fighters should surrender, has said little publicly about the talks.
Kalin said the Russian position “changes day to day”.
“They look at the security situation on the ground and other dynamics, their negotiations, their own internal coordination,” he said. “So sometimes it is hard to get a firm response (or) commitment from either side.”
Turkey neighbours Russia and Ukraine, has good ties with both and has tried to facilitate peace talks. It objected to Russia’s invasion and has supplied Kyiv with armed drones though it also opposes Western sanctions on Moscow.
Kalin said the naval evacuation from Berdyansk was one of a number of proposals to reach a ceasefire and carry out an evacuation.
“It may happen, yes. I believe it may happen,” he said.
“The boat is still in Istanbul. It is ready to sail but we are waiting for final clearance from Russian and Ukrainian side for it to go to Berdyansk and bring those injured soldiers to Turkey.”