Kiev / Mariupol – Moscow says about 700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered to Russian-controlled Mariupol as it gains a significant advantage in the south, as the United States becomes the last Western country to reopen its embassy in Kiev.
Ukraine has ordered its garrison to stand in Mariupol, but the final outcome of Europe’s bloodiest war for decades remains unresolved.
The top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who made their last stop on the Azovostal steelworks in the port city are still inside the plant, local news agency DNA reported Wednesday, quoting Denis Pushlin, a leader of the pro-Russian separatists who control the area.
Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.
“The state is doing its utmost to rescue our service personnel,” military spokesman Alexander Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could jeopardize that process.”
Ukraine on Tuesday confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters, but did not say how many more were inside.
Russia said on Wednesday that 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total to 959. Its defense ministry has posted a video of Ukrainian fighters being treated at a hospital after surrendering to Azovstal.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in the talks, Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boichenko said, without elaborating.
Mariupol is the largest city occupied by Russia to date and has allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the offensive that began on February 24.
Moscow has focused on the southeast in recent attacks since moving away from Kiev, where, as another sign of normalization, the United States said it resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.
The U.S. Senate has approved veteran diplomat Bridget Brink as ambassador to Ukraine, filling a position that has been vacant for three years.
Canada, Britain and others have recently reopened their embassies.
Moscow has said it is engaged in a “special military operation” to disarm and “exclude” its neighbors. West and Kyiv call it a false pretext for attack.
On the front lines of the war, Russian forces, with their main offensive, tried to occupy more territory in the eastern Donbass region, which Moscow claims is in favor of separatists.
Ukraine’s General Staff said in a statement on Thursday that the Russian attack was concentrated in the Donetsk region of Donbass.
Around Sloviansk, north of Donetsk, Russian forces surrounded the settlement of Velika Komishovakha and suffered “significant damage,” it said.
At least one civilian was killed when Ukrainian forces opened fire on a border village in western Russia’s Kursk early Thursday, regional governor Roman Starovit said.
Reuters could not verify the report.
Oleksiy Aristovich, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said Ukrainian saboteurs had blown up a train in front of an armored train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.
“Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online, but they are not immediately available for comment,” he said in a statement.
Aristovich said the incident showed that the factional movement was actively disrupting Russian forces.
Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, a decision was made in the wake of the Ukrainian aggression, and Putin cited Ukraine as the reason for the attack, a very kind of expansion.
US Ambassador to NATO Julian Smith called for an accelerated accession process that could be “within a few months” but NATO member Turkey said its approval depended on the return of “terrorist” Kurdish militants and Fethullah Gulen followers.
Both Finland and Sweden were militarily non-aligned during the Cold War.
Although Russia has threatened retaliation against the plan, Putin said on Monday that its alliance with NATO would not be a problem if the alliance did not send more troops or weapons.
Russia, however, could cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, said Gasum, Finland’s state-owned energy supplier.
The European Commission has announced a 210 billion euro ($ 220 billion) plan for Europe to end Russia’s dependence on oil, gas and coal by 2027.
Google, meanwhile, has become the latest major Western company to emerge from Russia, saying its local unit filed for bankruptcy and was forced to close operations after its bank account was seized.
(1 = 0.9550 euros)
(Reporting by Natalia Genetas and Max Hender of Kiev and a Reuters reporter in Mariupol; Additional report by Reuters Bureau; Written by Stephen Coates; Edited by Richard Pulin)