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Russia says Ukrainians surrender at Azovstal, Kyiv urges swap

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Donbas, an area in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, has become Moscow’s new military focus. AFP

Russia says Ukrainians surrender at Azovstal, Kyiv urges swap

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who held off Russian fighters at the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol have surrendered, Moscow said on May 17 , as Kyiv called for an immediate prisoner swap.

The strategic port city fell to Russian forces last month, but a relentless Ukrainian military unit held out in the maze of tunnels under the plant, hailed as heroes and celebrated for stalling Moscow’s military offensive.

On Tuesday, 265 of them were taken into Russian captivity, including 51 who were heavily wounded, the Russian defence ministry said.

The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

The defence ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an “exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible”.

The government would do “everything necessary” to rescue the undisclosed number of personnel still holed up in the Soviet-era bunkers, the ministry said, but admitted there was no military option available.

The fate of the captured Ukrainians was unclear Tuesday, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.

President Vladimir Putin “guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws,” Peskov said.

Trust between the two sides is in short supply, with Kyiv saying negotiations on ending the three-month conflict were on hold, blaming Moscow for a refusal to compromise.

Russian forces stand accused of committing war crimes during a conflict that has left thousands dead and forced millions to flee their homes.

These include the summary killing of civilians in places like Bucha, a small town outside of Kyiv, where AFP reporters witnessed bodies abandoned in the streets by retreating Russian invaders.

The International Criminal Court said Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, with 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff being sent into the field to gather evidence of alleged crimes.

And the US State Department also announced it was creating a special unit to research, document and publicise Russian war crimes.

The Conflict Observatory will “capture, analyse, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine,” the department said.

Moscow’s offensive has galvanised a broad coalition of western nations, with Europe and the United States supplying weapons and support to Ukraine, but it has also sparked fears among countries on Russia’s periphery about where Putin will set his sights next.

Finland and Sweden will on Wednesday formally submit a joint application to become members of NATO, the US-led western military alliance established to hold back Soviet Russia.

The application comes after lawmakers in Finland – which shares a 1,300km border with Russia – voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the bloc.

Although both countries have long cooperated with NATO, they have spent decades formally unaligned.

Russia’s military action in Ukraine has galvanised public support for membership, which would guarantee an overwhelming military response from NATO members if Finland is attacked.

The two bids must be unanimously approved by the alliance’s 30 nations, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected, accusing the Nordic nations of harbouring terror groups sympathetic to Kurdish separatists.

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