A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on May 16.
Concerns have been expressed over the fate of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by Russian forces after abandoning the Azovstal steel-mill complex in the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.
Prominent Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the State Duma and chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on May 22 that the fate of the captured soldiers, many of whom are members of the ultra-nationalist Azov Regiment, “should be determined by a tribunal.”
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“My opinion remains unchanged: There must be no exchange of members of the Azov [Regiment], which is outlawed in Russia,” Slutsky wrote on his Telegram channel.
Ukrainian officials and relatives of the soldiers have urged Moscow to treat the men as prisoners of war. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshuk said on May 21 that Kyiv “will fight for the return” of every one of them.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 20 asserted its forces had complete control of the massive factory following weeks of intense fighting in the city that has left thousands feared dead.
Ukraine has described the withdrawal from Azovstal as an authorized “evacuation,” rather than a surrender.
Russia has said some 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been taken into custody at the plant. Denis Pushilin, the head of a Russia-backed separatist group in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he thought the prisoners would face a “tribunal.”
The Kremlin has misleadingly portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as an effort to root out “Nazis” and other extremists.
The Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. Formerly known as the Azov Battalion, it espouses an ultra-nationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement authorities have linked with neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective part of the country’s defense forces.
The Russian state news agency Interfax earlier reported that Moscow was considering exchanging Azovstal prisoners for pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who is facing criminal charges in Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry on May 21 released video purportedly showing Russian troops taking Serhiy Volynskiy, commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s 36th Special Marine Brigade, into custody.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in Mariupol and are facing a major health and sanitation catastrophe, officials say. Local officials have accused Russia of concealing atrocities -- including the bombings of a maternity hospital and a theater in which hundreds of civilians were sheltering -- by burying slain civilians in shallow mass graves. Satellite images released in April seemed to show possible mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
“The city is on the verge of an outbreak of infectious diseases,” Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko posted on Telegram.