Moscow announces the surrender of 265 fighters from Mariupol, Kyiv speaks of “exchange”

KYIV | Moscow announced on Tuesday the surrender of 265 Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steelworks, the last pocket of resistance against the Russian army in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, Kyiv, citing an upcoming exchange for Russian prisoners.

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The total capture of Mariupol, a strategic city on the Sea of ​​Azov besieged since the beginning of March by the Russians, dearly defended by the Ukrainians and largely destroyed by the fighting, would be an important step forward for Moscow in this conflict. It would allow him to control a strip of territory ranging from the Crimean peninsula, which the Russians annexed in 2014, to the territories of Donbass (east) already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists.

“In the past 24 hours, 265 fighters have surrendered and taken themselves prisoner, 51 of them seriously injured,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on the state of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, launched February 24.

The exchange of these soldiers “will be carried out to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as soon as possible”, for its part indicated on Telegram the Military Intelligence Department of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, indirectly confirming that these men, who “filled” their mission, were well in the hands of the Russians.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk also mentioned an exchange, but only concerning “52 seriously injured soldiers”.

“After their condition stabilizes, we will exchange them for Russian prisoners of war,” she said on Telegram.

“Saving the lives of our guys”

On Monday evening, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said that “53 seriously injured were evacuated from Azovstal to Novoazovsk for medical assistance and 211 others were transported to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor”.

Novoazovsk and Olenivka are located in territory controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, but the fighters were to be repatriated to Ukrainian-controlled territory “as part of an exchange procedure”, it was said. she clarified.

These statements came after the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Monday that it had established a ceasefire around Azovstal.

Kyiv said last week that more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers – including 600 wounded – were in this industrial complex, a veritable “city within a city” with its kilometers of underground galleries.

As for the Ukrainian fighters who remained in Azovstal – the number of which Kyiv did not re-specify – the order was given to their commanders to “save (their) lives”, indicated the staff of the Ukrainian army in a press release .

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed in a video that the main thing was to “save the lives of our guys”. But they, too, may have no choice but to surrender, because while “the Ukrainian state is doing everything necessary” to save them, it “cannot unblock Azovstal today through military means”, admitted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on Telegram.

“Very powerful strikes” in the Donbass

The fierce resistance of the Ukrainians in Mariupol notably prevented the rapid capture by the Russian army of the large Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, 200 km to the northwest, and delayed the transfer of 20,000 Russian soldiers to other fronts, according to the Ukrainian General Staff.

On the eastern front of Ukraine, Moscow’s priority objective, the Russian army “continues to carry out offensive operations”, the general staff said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

The Russian forces are concentrating in particular on the city of Severodonetsk, which they almost encircle. This city has become a regional capital for Ukrainians since separatist forces backed by Moscow seized part of Donbass in 2014.

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“Severodonetsk suffered very powerful strikes”, just like its twin city of Lyssytchank, said Monday the governor of the region, Serguiï Gaïdaï, accompanying his message with images of the destruction.

But the Ukrainian forces are resisting, according to the Ukrainian general staff, in particular forcing the Russians to “withdraw” from Sirotyne after “heavy losses”.

“Russian soldiers expelled”

In the northeast, however, the Ukrainians have regained control of part of the border area near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, according to Kyiv.

Posting a video on its Facebook account showing Ukrainian soldiers in front of a border post painted in the colors of Ukraine, yellow and blue, the Ministry of Defense welcomed Monday that its forces had “expelled the Russians”.

The Russians shelled northern and eastern neighborhoods of Kharkiv for weeks. The city, whose many infrastructures have been destroyed, is trying to resume normal daily life, even if many inhabitants have not yet returned, noted an AFP team.

In a partly destroyed building in the Saltivkala district, Olexandre Vendland, a mover, visits his devastated apartment, in particular the bedroom of his two daughters, aged eight and 14: a pink bag, a large soft toy, small drawings, that’s all what emerges from the rubble. The 45-year-old widower sent his daughters to Germany, to their uncle: “It’s impossible to live here for children. They need food, education. There is nothing here. Volunteers help us with water and food so that we can survive”.

Ukrainian authorities now expect Russian units disengaged from the Kharkiv region to be sent to Donbass.

EU ‘held hostage’

Another front for Moscow: the probable enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Finland and Sweden, two countries that the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed to give up decades of no – military alignment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that these memberships did not constitute “an immediate threat”. But, he continued, “the deployment of military infrastructure on the territories of these countries will of course lead to a response”.

With Finland’s probable entry into NATO, Russia will share 1,300 km of additional land borders with the Atlantic Alliance.

In Brussels, the EU tried on Monday to agree on a halt to purchases of Russian oil, refused by Hungary, very dependent on Moscow in this sector.

“The whole Union is unfortunately taken hostage by a Member State which cannot help us find a consensus,” lamented the head of Lithuanian diplomacy, Gabrielius Landsbergis.

For the head of Hungarian diplomacy, Peter Szijjarto, “Hungarians are legitimately waiting for a proposal for a solution to finance investments (new infrastructures) and compensate for price increases, an overall cost of around 15-18 billion euro’.

At the end of the meeting, the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell conceded that finalizing the 6th package of sanctions against Russia “will take time”. An extraordinary European summit is scheduled for May 30 and 31.

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