Nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters surrendered at the Mariupol steelworks in the past 24 hours, Russia said on Wednesday, but leaders were reported to still be holed up inside, delaying the final end of Europe’s longest and bloodiest battle for decades.
Finland and Sweden meanwhile applied formally to join Nato, moving towards the very expansion Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of his main reasons for launching the “special military operation” in February.
Russia’s ministry of defence said the surrender of 694 more fighters meant that altogether 959 fighters have now laid down their arms at the vast Azovstal steelworks, last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in the city.
If confirmed, the Russian announcement would resolve much of the mystery surrounding the fate of hundreds of fighters in the plant, since Ukraine announced on Tuesday it had ordered the entire garrison to stand down. The Ukrainian defence ministry, which has so far confirmed only about 250 having left the plant, did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.
A local news agency quoted the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area as saying the main commanders inside the plant had yet to surrender. “They have not left,” DAN news agency quoted Denis Pushilin as saying.
The final surrender of Mariupol would end the siege of nearly three months of the once prosperous city of 400,000 people. Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians died there under Russian siege and bombardment, many buried in mass graves.
Kyiv and Moscow had both said on Tuesday that about 250 people left the plant, giving little clue as to the fate of hundreds more believed to be inside. Ukraine said it would not reveal how many were there until the operation to rescue all of them was complete.
Ukrainian officials have spoken of hopes to arrange a prisoner swap for Mariupol defenders they describe as national heroes. Moscow says no such deal was made for fighters it calls Nazis.
Russia says more than 50 wounded fighters have been brought for treatment to a hospital, and others have been taken to a newly reopened prison, both in towns held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters journalists have filmed buses bringing captured fighters to both locations.
The Kremlin says Putin personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender, but high-profile Russian politicians called publicly for them never to be exchanged and even for their execution.
Finland, Sweden and Nato
The Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over their Nato membership application letters in a ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters.
“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” said Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.
Ratification by all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say. Turkey surprised its allies by saying it has reservations about the new prospective members, especially their tolerance of Kurdish militant groups on their territory.
Stoltenberg said he thought the issues could be overcome. Washington has played down the possibility of Turkish objections halting the accession.
Finland, which has a 1,300-km border with Russia, and Sweden were militarily nonaligned throughout the Cold War. Their decision to join the alliance will be the biggest change in European security for decades.
At a stroke, it will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia, give Nato control of nearly the entire coast of the Baltic Sea and put Nato guards just a few hours drive north of St Petersburg.
After weeks in which Russia threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin appeared to climb down abruptly this week. He said in a speech on Monday that Russia had “no problems” with Finland or Sweden, and their Nato membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.
A rare victory
The steelworks surrender in Mariupol gives Putin a rare victory in a campaign that has otherwise faltered. In recent weeks, Russian forces quit the area around Ukraine’s second larges city Kharkiv. They are now retreating at their fastest rate since they were driven from the north and Kyiv environs at the end of March.
Moscow has continued to press on with its main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, which it claims on behalf of separatists it has backed since 2014.
Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, is the biggest city Russia has captured so far. This gives Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swathe of territory across the east and south of Ukraine.
The siege was the worst battle in Europe at least since the wars in Chechnya and the Balkans of the 1990s.
The city’s months of resistance became a global emblem of Ukraine’s refusal to yield against a far better-armed foe, while its near total destruction demonstrated Russia’s tactic of raining down fire on population centres.
Russia insists it had agreed to no prisoner swap in advance for the Azovstal defenders, many of whom belong to the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian unit with origins as a far right militia, which Russia describes as Nazis and blames for mistreating Russian speakers.
“I didn’t know English has so many ways to express a single message: the #Azovnazis have unconditionally surrendered,” tweeted Russian deputy ambassador to the UN Dmitry Polyansky.
TASS news agency reported a Russian committee planned to question the soldiers as part of an investigation into what Moscow calls “Ukrainian regime crimes”.
Leonid Slutsky, a Russian negotiator in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form”, and said they should be executed.
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