KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia said Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops making their last stand in Mariupol have surrendered, edging ever closer to the end of the battle that turned the city into a symbol of resistance and suffering.
The fighters trooping out of the ruined sprawl of the Azovstal steel mill, carrying their wounded and leaving a dwindling number inside, face an uncertain fate. Ukraine says it hopes for a prisoner swap, but Russia has said some could be investigated for war crimes.
Russia called the slow but steady abandonment of the last redoubt of resistance in Mariupol a surrender. Ukraine avoided that word. It’s unclear how many fighters remain inside the plant’s warren of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point.
Both sides are trying to shape the narrative and extract propaganda victories from what has been one of the most important and deadly battles of the war.
“There can be just one interpretation: The troops holed up at Azovstal are laying down their weapons and surrendering,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have now abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday. The leader of a Russia-backed separatist government that claims Mariupol as part of its territory said no commanders have emerged from the plant.
Russian Defense Ministry video has shown troops carrying out their wounded on gurneys and submitting to firm and thorough pat-downs. The troops were unarmed but were not shown with their hands raised in the air. Only the plant stands in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. That would be a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
After failing to overrun the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war, Putin’s troops pulled back and many atrocities came to light — sparking widespread outrage and further galvanizing Western opposition to the war.
Ukraine is investigating those and other war crimes, and in the first trial, a Russian soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing a Ukrainian civilian. Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, faces up to life in prison for shooting a Ukrainian man in the head.
Putin has since switched his focus in the war to eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland of the Donbas, but his troops are now bogged down there. He has faced a further setback with Sweden and Finland deciding to join NATO.
The countries submitted their applications Wednesday, a move that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called historic.
Finland and Sweden could become members within months if the reservations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be overcome. Other members of the 30-country alliance want to move quickly.
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 Russian military planners to fully focus on battles elsewhere in the east and south of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, the plant’s surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government open to claims that troops he described as heroes were abandoned.
“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 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 that would ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters, but didn’t take up the issue at its session on Wednesday.
Some Azovstal fighters who laid down their arms were taken to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Their legal status is not clear.
The Associated Press filmed military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign escorting a convoy of buses carrying the troops, as Soviet flags fluttered from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in one of the buses.
Mariupol was targeted by Russia from the outset. The city was largely flattened in steady bombardments, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there. During the siege, Russian forces also 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 in its daily intelligence report Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol “inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces.”
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
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