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Ukraine war: Uncertainty over the fate of surrendered Mariupol defenders

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By Kit Gillet  with AP, Reuters
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Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant. Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen sit in a bus after they were evacuated from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant. Tuesday, May 17, 2022.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Ukrainian fighters extracted from the last bastion of resistance in Mariupol have been taken to a former penal colony in Kremlin-controlled territory, with Kyiv officials saying they hope to exchange them for Russian prisoners of war.

However, their fate appears up in the air. One Moscow lawmaker has said they should be brought to “justice,” as Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

Russian news agencies are reporting that the Duma plans to take up a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of Azov Regiment fighters.

Ending the siege

Russia's Defence Ministry announced on Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian soldiers entrenched at the Azovstal steel site had surrendered since Monday.

"In the last 24 hours 694 fighters, including 29 wounded, have been taken as prisoners. Since 16 May, fighters, including 80 wounded, have been taken prisoner," the ministry said in a statement, reiterated by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov.

Footage that has been made public since Monday showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the “Z” sign, symbolising the Russian invasion.

Some headed for the Russian-held town of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said wounded fighters would be treated, while others carrying Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal garrison arrived at a newly reopened prison in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka near Donetsk, according to witnesses.

The surrender brought an end to the most devastating siege of Russia's war in Ukraine and allowed President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering campaign.

The Kremlin said Putin had personally guaranteed the prisoners would be treated according to international standards.

Details of the agreement reached between Russia and Ukraine to facilitate the evacuation have not been made public, however, including how many fighters still remain inside and whether any form of prisoner swap has been agreed upon.

Ukraine's deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said negotiations for the fighters' release are ongoing, as were plans to rescue those who were still inside the sprawling steel mill.

Controversial battalion

However, in a statement on social media, Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyansky said that there had been no deal. "I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: the #Azovnazis have unconditionally surrendered,” he wrote on Twitter.

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Sputnik radio station on Wednesday blaming the Ukrainian government for "betraying the people who were in Azovstal", while the leader of the so-called DNR Denis Pushilin asked for an international tribunal to "bring any war criminal among [Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal] to justice".

Russia’s TASS news agency has reported that a committee plans to question the soldiers, many of them members of the Azov Battalion, as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls "Ukrainian regime crimes”.

Formed in 2014 as an extreme right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, the Azov Regiment has since been reformed and integrated into the National Guard, according to Kyiv.

High-profile Russian lawmakers have spoken out against any prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia's lower house, said: "Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.”

Meanwhile, Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia's negotiators in talks with Ukraine, has called the evacuated combatants "animals in human form”, and said they should be executed.

Although the Geneva Convention prohibits the prosecution of soldiers for taking direct part in hostilities, an exception allows the detaining side to bring individuals to court for war crimes.

The Kremlin has accused members of the Azov Batallion of war crimes prior to and during the 24 February invasion.