Kiev / Mariupol – Russia said on Wednesday that 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol, but Kiev remained silent about their fate, while a pro-Russian separatist leader said commanders were still trapped in a tunnel under the giant Azovostal steelwork.
More than a day after Kyiv’s announcement that his garrison in Mariupol had been ordered to stand, Ukrainian officials stopped all public discussion of the fate of the remaining fighters in their last positions there.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says another 694 fighters surrendered overnight, bringing the total number of weapons surrendered to 959. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The leader of the pro-Russian separatists in control of the area quoted a local news agency as saying that the top commanders inside the plant had not yet surrendered: “They have not left,” Dan News Agency quoted Danis Pushlin as saying.
Ukrainian officials on Tuesday confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters. But they did not say how many more were inside or what would happen to them, and made it clear on Wednesday that no further comment would be made.
“Unfortunately, the issue is very sensitive and there is a very fragile set of discussions going on today, so I can’t say much more than that,” said Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boichenko. He said President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in the talks, but did not elaborate.
“The bottom line is that our sons have saved our country, given us the opportunity to prepare for this devastating war.”
Discussions on Mariupol’s surrender began when Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO, with Russian President Vladimir Putin citing in February one of the main reasons for launching a “special military operation” that has led to widespread expansion.
The final surrender of Mariupol will bring closer to the nearly three-month siege of the once prosperous city of more than 400,000 people, where Ukraine says thousands of civilians have died in Russian blockades and bombings, many buried in mass graves.
Ukrainian officials have said they hope to arrange a prisoner exchange to portray Mariupol defenders as national heroes. Moscow says no such deal has been reached for fighters known as Nazis.
Russia says more than 50 wounded fighters have been taken to a hospital for treatment, and others have been taken to a newly reopened prison, both occupied by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters reporters covered the bus carrying the captured fighters in both places.
The Kremlin says Putin has personally vowed humane treatment of those who have surrendered, but high-profile Russian politicians have publicly called for them never to be exchanged or even executed.
Finland and Sweden have applied to NATO
The Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over their applications for NATO membership at a ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
“This is a historic moment that we must seize,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Diplomats say parliamentary approval by all 30 allies could take up to a year. Turkey has in recent days surprised its allies by saying it has objections to new potential members, especially their tolerance of Kurdish militant groups on their soil.
Stoltenberg said he thought the problems could be overcome. Washington has also reduced the possibility of suspending the inclusion of Turkish objections.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily unconnected during the Cold War, and their decision to join the alliance represents the biggest change in European security in decades.
In one stroke, it would give NATO control over almost the entire coast of the Baltic Sea, more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia, and keep NATO guards within hours’ drive north of St. Petersburg.
In the weeks since Russia threatened retaliation against the plan, Putin has come down sharply this week, saying in a speech Monday that Russia has “no problem” with Finland or Sweden and that their NATO membership would not be a problem unless the alliance has more troops there. Or sent weapons.
The surrender of Steelwork in Mariupol will allow Putin to claim a rare victory in a campaign that would otherwise have failed. In recent weeks, Russian forces have abandoned areas around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and are now retreating at the fastest rate since they were driven out of northern and Kiev’s environment in late March.
Nonetheless, Moscow continues its main offensive, seeking to occupy more territory in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, which it has been supporting since 2014, claiming to be a separatist.
Mariupol, the main port of Donbass, Russia occupies the largest city to date and has given Moscow full control of the Azov Sea and an uninterrupted territory across eastern and southern Ukraine. The blockade was Europe’s deadliest since the wars in Chechnya and the Balkans in the 1990s.
The city’s months-long resistance became a global symbol of Ukraine’s refusal to bear fruit against its more advanced-armed enemy, while its almost complete destruction demonstrated the strategy of firing on Russia’s population centers.
Russia, which denies targeting civilians, insists it has not agreed to any prior prisoner exchanges for Azvastal defenders. Many fighters belong to the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian unit originating as a far-right militia, which Russia describes as Nazi and responsible for abusing Russian speakers.
“I did not know that there are so many ways to convey a single message in English: #AzovNazis have surrendered unconditionally,” tweeted Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN Dmitry Polyansky.
Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency reported that a Russian committee had planned to interrogate troops as part of an investigation into what Moscow called “crimes under Ukrainian rule.”
(Reporting by Natalia Genetes and Max Hunder in Kiev and a Reuters reporter in Mariupol; Additional reporting by the Reuters Bureau; Writing by Peter Graf and Stephen Coates; Editing by Grant McCull, Lincoln Fist and Nick McPhee.)