KYIV, Ukraine — The fate of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who surrendered after holding out against punishing attacks on Mariupol’s steel factory hung in the balance Thursday, amid international fears that the Russians may take reprisals against the prisoners.
The International Committee of the Red Cross gathered personal information from hundreds of the soldiers — name, date of birth, closest relative — and registered them as prisoners of war, as part of its role in ensuring the humane treatment of POWs under the Geneva Conventions.
Amnesty International said in a tweet that the Ukrainian soldiers are now prisoners of war and as such “must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment.”
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Russian authorities claim that more than 1 700 defenders of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel facility in Mariupol surrendered on Monday. This was the last stage of the three-month-long siege of this port city.
Russians took some of these fighters, at most, to a former penal colony under the control of Moscow-backed separatists. A separatist official said that some others had been admitted to hospital.
Unknown numbers remained, however, in the vast network of tunnels and bunkers in the plant’s sprawling complex.
A video message was sent by the Azov Regiment’s deputy commander, who said that the Azov Regiment led the defense of the steel plant.
“An operation is underway, the details of which I will not announce,” Svyatoslav Palamar said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was working to ensure “that the most influential international forces are informed and, as much as possible, involved in saving our troops.”
While Ukraine expressed hope for a prisoner exchange, Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the Azovstal fighters for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals.
The Azov Regiment’s far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in the first war crimes trial held by Ukraine, a captured Russian soldier testified that he shot an unarmed civilian in the head on an officer’s orders, and he asked the victim’s widow to forgive him. Although the soldier plead guilty in advance of the hearing, prosecutors provided evidence that was in conformity with Ukrainian law.
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Two other Russian soldiers were charged with war crimes in the Poltava area for shelling civilians. Two other Russian soldiers appeared in court Thursday on war-crimes charges that they shelled civilians. Prosecutors stated both had pleaded guilty. Their next court hearing was scheduled for May 26.
The Senate approved an overwhelmingly approved $40 billion package to provide military and economic support to Ukraine. It was approved by the House last week. President Joe Biden’s quick signature was certain.
“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Russia could take the Azovstal Steel plant and regain control over Mariupol. This would give Russia a much-needed victory. But it would be a mostly symbolic victory at this point, since the city is already effectively in Moscow’s hands and analysts say most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the battle there have already left.
Kyiv’s troops, bolstered by Western weapons, thwarted Russia’s initial goal of storming the capital, Kyiv, and have put up stiff resistance against Moscow’s forces in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on capturing.
The surprising success of Ukraine’s troops has buoyed Kyiv’s confidence.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said in a tweet addressed to Moscow: “Do not offer us a cease-fire — this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal.”
“Until Russia is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money,” he wrote.
Russia however, has signaled again its desire to include or maintain control over the territories it has taken.
Marat Khusnullin was the Deputy Prime Minster. He visited Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. These regions have been in Russian hands since the February invasion. He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the regions could become part of “our Russian family.”
Also, Volodymyr Saldo, the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, appeared in a video on Telegram saying Kherson “will become a subject of the Russian Federation.”
Other developments include the fact that Gen. Mark Milley (chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff) spoke to his Russian counterpart by telephone on Thursday for the first time since war started. They agreed to maintain open communications, according the Pentagon.
On the battlefield, Ukraine’s military said Russian forces pressed their offensive in various sections of the front in the Donbas but were being repelled. While the Luhansk governor claimed four victims were killed in Russian bombardment, separatist officials from Donetsk claim two.
Zelenskyy stated that 12 people died in Severodonetsk and several more were injured. There were also attacks on northeastern Chernihiv regions, including a strike on Desna. Many more were hurt and many others were left dead. Rescuers are still working through the rubble.
The governor of Kursk Province stated that a Ukrainian truck driver died in the shelling incident on the Russian side.
In Kyiv’s war crimes trial, Sergeant. Vadim Schishimarin, 21, a Russian soldier in a tank unit told court that he had shot Oleksandr Shihelipov (a Ukrainian civilian of 62 years old), on order from an officer.
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Shishimarin stated that while he didn’t obey the first order, he was forced to do so when another officer repeated it. He said he was told the man could pinpoint the troops’ location to Ukrainian forces.
A prosecutor has disputed that Shishimarin was acting under orders, saying the direction didn’t come from a direct commander.
Shishimarin apologized to the victim’s widow, Kateryna Shelipova, who described seeing her husband being shot just outside their home in the early days of Russia’s invasion.
She told the court that she believes Shishimarin deserves a life sentence, the maximum possible, but that she wouldn’t mind if he were exchanged as part of a swap for the Azovstal defenders.
McQuillan was reporting from Lviv. Associated Press journalist Yuras Karamanau in Lviv and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv and Aamer Madhani, Washington, contributed to this report.
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