Russia says hundreds of Ukrainians have surrendered to Azovstal

Russia said on Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian troops had surrendered after their last stop at the besieged Azvastal steelworks in Mariupol, prompting calls for a prisoner exchange in Kiev.

Moscow claimed control of the strategic port city of Mariupol last month after a week-long blockade, but hundreds of Ukrainian troops are trapped in underground tunnels beneath the huge Azovstal industrial zone.

“In the last 24 hours, 275 militants have surrendered their weapons and surrendered, with 51 seriously injured,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The wounded were taken to a hospital in a part of the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

Elsewhere, Finnish lawmakers – who share a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia – have overwhelmingly voted to join the NATO military alliance.

The vote paved the way for the submission of a joint petition with Sweden on Wednesday, amid fears that they could be the next target of Russian aggression.

Kyiv, meanwhile, says talks with Russia about ending the nearly three-month-old war, which has killed thousands and forced millions to flee, were “on hold” and blamed Moscow for failing to compromise.

– ICC Deployment – Ukraine’s Defense Ministry confirms that troops have left Azvastal, hoping for an “exchange mechanism … to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as soon as possible”.

For those left behind in the tunnel warren at the bottom of the Steelworks complex, it said it was doing “everything necessary to rescue them” – although military intervention was not possible.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer questions about whether Azovstal soldiers would be treated as war criminals or prisoners of war.

He said President Vladimir Putin had “assured them that they would be treated in accordance with relevant international law.”

Ukraine has blamed Moscow for war crimes during the conflict, particularly in the town of Bucha near Kiev, where AFP reporters saw at least 20 bodies lying on the streets after Russian troops withdrew in late March.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Tuesday it was deploying its largest field team in Ukraine, comprising 42 investigators, forensic experts and aid workers.

– Trying to stay alive – The military says retaining steelworks delayed the transfer of 20,000 Russian troops to other parts of Ukraine and prevented Moscow from rapidly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhia.

“Aztec Defenders have thwarted Russia’s plan to occupy eastern Ukraine … It has completely changed the course of the war,” tweeted Mikhailo Podoliak, an aide to the president.

Referring to the Spartans’ famous last stand against the Persians in 480 BC, he said, “The 83-day history of the Mariupol defense will come down as the 21st century thermopile.”

Across the country, Ukrainian forces have been able to fight the huge Russian army for longer than many expected, protected by arms and cash from Western allies.

After encircling the capital Kyiv in the first week of the war, Moscow has increasingly focused on the eastern part of Donbass, on the Russian border.

Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are withdrawing from the vicinity of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and will be re-deployed to Donbass.

But Kiev’s profits have come at a much higher cost, with villages bombed and destroyed.

Just north of Kharkiv, in Ruska Lojova, Rostislav Stepanenko described to AFP how he returned to collect some items but returned empty-handed and was stunned by the incessant artillery shelling.

Asked what he did for a living, he joked that he was “trying to survive.”

And his age? “Hopefully, I’ll be 54, but I don’t expect that today,” he said with a nervous smile.

– ‘Non-stop shelling’ – Ukraine says Russia is targeting the cities of Donbass, including the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk.

Severodonetsk’s control will give the Kremlin control of Lugansk’s de facto control, one of two regions – with Donetsk – consisting of Donbass.

Russia’s attempt to completely encircle Severodonetsk has been rejected, with Ukrainian forces blowing up railway bridges to slow their advance.

But Sergei Gade, Lugansk’s regional governor, said the shelling was “non-stop” and that two buildings at the city’s General Hospital had been hit overnight.

“We have 10 people killed and three injured in this area,” he wrote in the Telegram.

Elsewhere, eight people were killed and 12 wounded in a Russian attack on the village of Desna in the northeastern Chernigiv region, where Ukrainian military bases are located, emergency services said.

Meanwhile in New York City, north of Donetsk, residents say they have been under artillery fire for a month and it is getting worse.

“Now they are shooting at us from the west, east and south,” semistress Valentina Kenebalotskaya told AFP.

– NATO bid ‘no direct threat’ – Fearing Russia’s ambitions, Sweden and Finland are ready to abandon decades of military neutrality and join NATO.

On Monday, Putin said the move “is not a direct threat to us … but the expansion of military infrastructure in these areas will certainly provoke our response.”

His response was more moderate than that of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who called the expansion “a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences.”

NATO bids must be approved unanimously by the alliance’s 30 countries, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan objected on Monday.

He accused Finland and Sweden of harboring terrorist groups, including banned Kurdish militants.

However, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed confidence that the bids would be successful and that he was scheduled to meet with the Turkish Foreign Minister in Washington on Wednesday.

In addition to practical support for Ukraine, Western nations have sought to punish Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions, with the EU currently considering sanctions on Russian oil.

Hungary is blocking sanctions, citing costs, and Putin on Tuesday claimed that Europe risked “economic suicide”.

Many EU countries are also dependent on Russian gas but are confused after Moscow demanded payment in rubles to avoid sanctions.

Italian power giant Anne on Tuesday announced a possible solution involving the opening of two accounts at the bank of the Russian power company Gazprom. It has proposed to pay in euros which will be converted into rubles via the Moscow Stock Exchange.

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