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    Saturday, August 13, 2022

    Interrogation, uncertainty for surrendering Mariupol troops

    In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, shows a wounded Ukrainian servicemen lying in a hospital in Novoazovsk, Ukraine, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, after he an his comrades were evacuated from Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

    Kyiv, Ukraine — Nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who had held out inside Mariupol's pulverized steel plant have surrendered, Russia said Wednesday, as the battle that turned the city into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close.

    Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war-crimes charges pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.

    The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened 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 said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

    Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate.”

    It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.

    The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow's forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

    Military analysts, though, said the city's capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow's control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.

    Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.

    Video 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 pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.

    In a sign of normalcy returning to Kyiv, the U.S. Embassy reopened on Wednesday, one month after Russian forces abandoned their bid to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed. A dozen embassy employees watched solemnly as the American flag was raised.

    “The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again,“ Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. Other Western countries have been reopening their embassies in Kyiv as well.

    In the war-crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war. Ukraine's top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied.

    On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO in a matter of months, though objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt things. Turkey accuses the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.

    Ibrahim Kalin, a foreign policy adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, said there will be “no progress” on the membership applications unless Turkey's concerns are met. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.

    Mariupol's defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.

    Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would allow Russia to focus fully on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial east.

    For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government open to allegations it abandoned the troops he described as heroes.

    “Zelenskyy may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”

    A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.

    Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

    Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.

    The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn’t take up the issue Wednesday.

    Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the outset. The city — its prewar population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there.

    During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theater.

    Britain’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol “inflicted costly personnel losses" on Russian forces.

    The Kremlin, meanwhile, moved to expel 85 Spanish, French and Italian diplomats. Russia and a host of European countries have been throwing out each other’s diplomats since the invasion.

    Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelenskyy noted Russian claims to have deployed new laser weapons in Ukraine. He said the claims reflected a desire to find an alternative to missiles, and he likened them to Nazi Germany’s claims of Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, as the tide began to turn against it during World War II.

    A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the U.S. has seen nothing to corroborate the claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment.

    Zelenskyy also said Ukraine is determined to retake the southern cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Enerhodar and Mariupol.

    “All of our cities and communities under occupation ... should know that Ukraine will return,” he said.

    Rescuers carry the body of a civilian at a site of an apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
    Employees of US embassy in Ukraine raise the US national flag at the US embassy, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    The withered hand of a dead Russian soldier pokes out of a body bag during the exhumation of killed Russian soldiers' at their former positions near the village of Malaya Rohan, on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Wednesday May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko)
    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg displays documents as Sweden and Finland applied for membership in Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday May 18, 2022. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the military alliance stands ready to seize a historic moment and move quickly on allowing Finland and Sweden to join its ranks, after the two countries submitted their membership requests. (Johanna Geron, Pool via AP)
    In this photo taken from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, shows Ukrainian servicemen as they leave the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
    The helmet of a Russian soldier lays in a trench in the village of Malaya Rohan, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, May 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
    In this photo taken from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, a Russian serviceman frisks a Ukrainian soldier after he left the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
    Villagers walk past unexploded artillery shells as they collect scrap metal from a bombed warehouse in the village of Malaya Rohan, Kharkiv region, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
    Russian army Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, 21, is seen behind a glass during a court hearing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. The Russian soldier has gone on trial in Ukraine for the killing of an unarmed civilian. The case that opened in Kyiv marked the first time a member of the Russian military has been prosecuted for a war crime since Russia invaded Ukraine 11 weeks ago. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    Men walk past a damaged building after Russian shelling in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
    A resident walks past a destroyed house in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
    A woman walks past a crater of an explosion after Russian shelling in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
    Ukrainian servicemen fire mortars towards Russian positions in east Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
    Rescuers work at a site of an apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
    A view of a street in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, with the Azovstal steel plant in the background. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

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