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Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in Mariupol

Russia said on Wednesday nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its Kyiv embassy after a three-month closure.

More than a day after Ukraine announced it had ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remained unresolved.

Ukrainian officials declined to comment publicly on the fate of fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks plant, holding out as Mariupol was taken over by Russian forces.

“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

Russia said 694 more fighters had surrendered overnight, bringing the total number of people who had laid down arms to 959.

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, was quoted by local news agency DNA as saying the main commanders were still inside the plant.

Ukrainian officials had confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but they did not say how many more were inside.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks but gave no details.

Russia has focussed on the south-east in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalization, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.

“The Ukrainian people… have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A small number of diplomats would return initially to staff the mission but consular operations will not resume immediately, said embassy spokesperson Daniel Langenkamp.

Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.

But the steelworks surrender allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory.

It also signals the approaching end of a near three-month siege of the port city of more than 400,000 people, where Ukraine says tens of thousands died under Russian bombardment.

Ukrainian officials have spoken of arranging a prisoner swap but Moscow says no such deal was made for the fighters, many from a far-right unit.

Russia says more than 50 wounded fighters have been brought for treatment to a hospital, and others have been taken to a prison, both in Ukrainian towns held by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia’s defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.

One man shown lying on bed said he had access to food and doctors, while a second said he had been bandaged and had no complaints about his treatment. It was not possible to establish if the men were speaking freely.

The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender. Other Russian politicians have called for them to be kept captive and even executed.

RAMIFICATIONS IN EUROPE

As reaction to the war continued to ripple across Europe, Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the very expansion that Putin has long cited as a main reason for launching the February “special military operation.”

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told Sky News the accession process needed to be expedited.

“I think we’d like to see it done in a couple of months. That’s the goal,” she said.

But NATO member Turkey’s president said Sweden should not expect Turkey to approve its bid unless it returned “terrorists”, Kurdish militants and followers of Fethullah Gulen, and Swedish and Finnish delegations should not come to Turkey to convince it otherwise.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War.

Although Russia had threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin said on Monday their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

And in a bid to cut energy dependence, the European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027, including plans to more than double EU renewable energy capacity by 2030. 

Meanwhile, Google GOOGL.O became the latest big Western company to pull out of Russia, saying its local unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized.

KHARKIV

On the battle front, in recent weeks, Russian forces have abandoned the area around Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv. 

“We have some success in these directions,” Zelenskiy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak told MSNBC.

Nevertheless, Moscow has continued to press on with its main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the Donbas region which it claims on behalf of separatists.

Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, is the biggest city Russia has captured so far, and gives Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swathe of territory across Ukraine’s east and south.

The city’s near total destruction demonstrated Russia’s tactic of raining down fire on population centres.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented cases of apparent war crimes by Russian troops in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions from late February through March, including summary executions, torture and other grave abuses.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the report. Moscow denies targeting civilians and says, without evidence, that signs of atrocities were staged to discredit its troops.

RETERS
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Local news outlet RIA Melitopol reported that Ukrainian forces blew up the armoured train used by Russian invaders by installing explosives on the railway

Ukrainian fighters blew up an armoured train carrying Russian troops using an explosive device in the occupied southern city of Melitopol, the Ukrainian territorial defence force said on Wednesday.

Reuters could not independently verify the claim. Russia’s Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

The city of Melitopol in the region of Zaporizhzhia lies in a belt of southern Ukrainian land that was occupied by Russian forces after they invaded on Feb. 24.

The Ukrainian territorial defence, the reservist branch of the armed forces, said an explosive device detonated directly under a carriage carrying servicemen.

Their statement, published on Facebook, did not elaborate on the extent of the damage.
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Little is known about the specifics of the new laser weapon. Vladimir Putin has mentioned one called Peresvet, named after a medieval Orthodox warrior monk Alexander Peresvet who perished in mortal combat

Russia on Wednesday said it was using a new generation of powerful laser weapons in Ukraine to burn up drones, deploying some of Moscow’s secret weapons to counter a flood of Western arms supplied to its former Soviet neighbour.

President Vladimir Putin in 2018 unveiled an array of new weapons including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, underwater nuclear drones, a supersonic weapon and a new laser weapon.

Little is known about the specifics of the new laser weapons. Putin mentioned one called Peresvet, named after a medieval Orthodox warrior monk Alexander Peresvet who perished in mortal combat.

Yury Borisov, the deputy prime minister in charge of military development, told a conference in Moscow that Peresvet was already being widely deployed and it could blind satellites up to 1,500 km above Earth.

He said, though, that there were already more powerful Russian systems than Peresvet that could burn up drones and other equipment. Borisov cited a test on Tuesday which he said had burned up a drone 5 km away within five seconds.

“If Peresvet blinds, then the new generation of laser weapons lead to the physical destruction of the target – thermal destruction, they burn up,” Borisov told Russian state television.

Asked if such weapons were being used in Ukraine, Borisov said: “Yes. The first prototypes are already being used there.” He said the weapon was called “Zadira”.

Almost nothing is publicly known about Zadira but in 2017 Russian media said Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, helped develop it as part of a programme to create weapons-based new physical principles, known by the Russian acronym ONFP.

Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has illustrated the limits of Russia’s post-Soviet conventional armed forces, though he says the “special military operation” is going to plan and will achieve all of Moscow’s aims.

The United States has ruled out sending its own or NATO forces to Ukraine but Washington and its allies have supplied billions of dollars of weapons to Kyiv such as drones, Howitzer heavy artillery, anti-aircraft Stinger and anti-tank Javelin missiles.

Putin casts such large arms shipments as part of a broader plan by the United States to destroy Russia – and has promised that it will never succeed.

Borisov’s remarks indicate that Russia has made significant progress with laser weapons, a trend of considerable interest to other nuclear powers such as the United States and China.

Using lasers to blind satellites – or even burn them up – was once a fantasy from the realm of science fiction, but major powers such as the United States, China and Russia have been working on variants of such weapons for years.

Besides the benefits in conventional warfare of burning up drones, blinding reconnaissance systems has a strategic impact too as satellites are used to monitor intercontinental ballistic missiles which carry nuclear weapons.

Borisov said he had just returned from Sarov, a closed town in the Nizhny Novgorod region once known as Arzamas-16 because it was so secret, which is a centre of Russia’s nuclear weapons research.

He said a new generation of laser weapons using a wide electromagnetic band would ultimately replace conventional weapons.

“This is not some sort of exotic idea; it is the reality,” Borisov said.

REUTERS
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Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in Mariupol

Russia said on Wednesday nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol, but Kyiv was silent about their fate, while a pro-Russian separatist leader said commanders were still holed up in tunnels beneath the giant Azovstal steelworks.

More than a day after Kyiv announced it had ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remained unresolved. Ukrainian officials halted all public discussion of the fate of fighters who had made their last stand there.

“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our servicemen. Let’s wait. Currently, the most important thing is to save the lives of our heroes,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

Russia’s ministry of defence said 694 more fighters had surrendered overnight, bringing the total number of people who had laid down arms to 959. The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, was quoted by a local news agency DNA as saying the main commanders were still inside the plant.

Ukrainian officials had confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday. But they did not say how many more were inside or what might become of them.

“Unfortunately, the subject is very sensitive and there is a very fragile set of talks going on today, therefore I cannot say anything more,” said Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko. He said President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks, but gave no further details.

The negotiations over the surrender of Mariupol came as Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the very expansion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of his main reasons for launching the “special military operation” in February.

The final surrender of Mariupol would bring a close to a near three month siege of the once prosperous city of more than 400,000 people, where Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians died under Russian bombardment.

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 the fighters, many from a unit with far-right origins, which 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 re-opened prison, both in towns held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters journalists have filmed buses bringing some captured fighters to both locations.

The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender. Other high-profile Russian politicians have publicly called for them never to be exchanged, or even for their execution.

FINLAND AND SWEDEN APPLY TO NATO

The Swedish and Finnish ambassadors handed over their NATO membership application letters in a ceremony at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

“This is a historic moment which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it will block the Nordic members’ accession unless they do more to crack down on Kurdish militants on their territory. Stoltenberg said he thought the issue could be overcome, and Washington has also said it expects it to be resolved.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join the alliance represents the biggest change in European security for decades. It will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia and give NATO control over nearly the entire coast of the Baltic Sea.

After weeks in which Russia threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin appeared to abruptly climb down this week, saying in a speech on Monday that Russia had “no problems” with either Finland or Sweden, and their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

Despite war and sanctions, Russia has remained the main source of energy for Europe. European countries are under pressure to reduce the trade, Moscow’s biggest source of funds.

The EU’s executive European Commission unveiled a 210 billion euro plan on Wednesday for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027, including plans to more than double EU renewable energy capacity by 2030.

In a further sign of Russia’s isolation, Moscow expelled 85 diplomats from France, Spain and Italy on Wednesday, retaliating for a similar number of Russians sent home. European nations have collectively thrown out more than 300 Russian diplomats since the Feb. 24 invasion.

Google became the latest big Western country to pull out of Russia, saying its Russian unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized.

VICTORY

The steelworks surrender in Mariupol would let Putin claim a rare victory in a campaign which has otherwise faltered. Recent weeks have seen Russian forces abandon the area around Ukraine’s second larges city Kharkiv, retreating at their fastest rate since they were driven from the north and the Kyiv environs at the end of March.

Nevertheless, 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 supported since 2014.

Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, is the biggest city Russia has captured so far, and gives Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swathe of territory across Ukraine’s east and south. The siege was Europe’s deadliest battle at least since 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.

REUTERS
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Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin, 21

A Russian soldier accused of war crimes in Ukraine pleaded guilty on Wednesday to killing an elderly unarmed civilian.

Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian tank commander, entered his plea in a Kyiv district court hearing its first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier who took part in Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion.

In a trial that has huge symbolic importance for Kyiv, Shishimarin is charged with murdering a 62-year-old civilian in the northeast Ukrainian village of Chupakhivka on Feb. 28. If convicted, he faces up to life imprisonment.

Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during the invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes.

Russia has denied targeting civilians or involvement in war crimes and accused Kyiv of staging them to smear its forces.

Asked about the trial, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: “As before, there is no information (about the trial) and the ability of Russia to provide assistance is also limited due to the absence of our diplomatic mission.”

Asked more broadly about war crimes allegations against Russian forces in Ukraine, Peskov said: “We consider it impossible and unacceptable to throw such terms around. Many of the cases that Ukraine is talking about are obvious fakes, and the most egregious ones are staged, as has been convincingly proved by our experts.”

After guards led Shishimarin into the court in handcuffs, he was asked by the judge if he accepted the charge against him. He confirmed that he did.

Ukrainian state prosecutors have said Shishimarin and four other Russian servicemen fired at and stole a privately owned car to escape after their column was targeted by Ukrainian forces.

The Russian soldiers drove into the village of Chupakhivka where they saw an unarmed resident riding a bicycle and talking on his phone, they said.

They said Shishimarin was ordered by another serviceman to kill the civilian to prevent him reporting on the Russians’ presence and fired several shots through the open window of the car with an assault rifle at the civilian’s head. The civilian died on the spot.

REUTERS
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The European Commission on Wednesday unveiled a 210 billion euro plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027, and to use the pivot away from Moscow to quicken its transition to green energy.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Europe’s top gas supplier, has prompted the European Union to rethink its energy policies amid sharpened concerns of supply shocks. Russia supplies 40% of the bloc’s gas and 27% of its imported oil, and EU countries are struggling to agree sanctions on the latter.

To wean countries off those fuels, Brussels proposed a three-pronged plan: a switch to import more non-Russian gas, a faster rollout of renewable energy, and more effort to save energy.

The measures include a mix of EU laws, non-binding schemes, and recommendations to governments in the EU’s 27 member countries, who are largely in charge of their national energy policies.

Taken together, Brussels expects them to require 210 billion euros in extra investments by 2027 and 300 billion euros by 2030 on top of those already needed to meet the bloc’s 2030 climate target. Ultimately, it said the investments would slash Europe’s fossil fuel import bill.

Those investments include 86 billion euros for renewable energy and 27 billion for hydrogen infrastructure, 29 billion euros for power grids and 56 billion euros for energy savings and heat pumps.

The Commission said some investments in fossil fuel infrastructure would be required – 10 billion euros for a dozen gas and liquefied natural gas projects, and up to 2 billion euros for oil, targeting land-locked Central and Eastern European countries that lack access to non-Russian supply.

Brussels wants countries to finance the measures using the EU’s 800 billion euro COVID-19 recovery fund, and said it will also sell extra carbon market permits from a reserve over the next few years to raise 20 billion euros.

To spearhead the plans, the Commission proposed a higher legally-binding target to get 45% of EU energy from renewable sources by 2030, replacing its current 40% proposal.

That would see the EU more than double its renewable energy capacity to 1,236 gigawatts (GW) by 2030, and be aided by a law allowing simpler one-year permits for wind and solar projects. The EU also proposed phasing in obligations for countries to fit new buildings with solar panels.

Another target would cut EU energy consumption 13% by 2030 against expected levels, replacing its current 9% proposal. The EU is negotiating laws to renovate buildings faster to use less energy, and said voluntary actions such as driving less or turning down thermostats could cut gas and oil demand by 5%.

The legally-binding targets require approval from EU countries and lawmakers.

The EU plan includes a short-term dash for non-Russian gas supplies to replace the 155 billion cubic metres Europe buys from Moscow each year. Europe’s gas demand is expected to drop 30% by 2030 to meet climate targets, but for now countries rely on the fuel to heat homes, power industry and produce electricity.

Individual companies – not the EU – are responsible for buying gas, but Brussels will launch a scheme to allow countries to jointly buy gas. Experts have said this will be complex to launch and likely wouldn’t help in a short-term energy crunch. Read full story

The EU said it wants to also produce 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2030 and import another 10 million tonnes – which could be used to replace gas in industry, to avoid locking in years of emissions.

REUTERS
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The Russian rouble weakened against the dollar on Wednesday but steadied not far from a five-year high against the euro, after losing the support of some capital controls and as sovereign default risk again became a prominent issue.

The rouble has become the world’s best-performing currency this year despite a full-scale economic crisis, artificially supported by controls that Russia imposed in late February to shield its financial sector after it sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine.

At 0741 GMT, the rouble was 0.5 per cent weaker against the dollar at 63.90, moving further away from the 62.6250 level reached on Friday, its strongest since early February 2020.

It had gained 0.2 per cent to trade at 66.96 versus the euro, hovering near its strongest level since mid-2017 of 64.9425, which it touched last week.

The rouble has pared some gains since the central bank on Monday raised the ceiling for cross-border transactions, allowing Russian residents and non-residents from friendly states to channel foreign currency abroad at an amount equivalent to up to $50,000 a month. The previous limit was $10,000.

Export-focused companies are still obliged to convert 80 per cent of their revenues, because the central bank cannot itself intervene after the West froze about half of its gold and foreign exchange reserves.

Promsvyazbank analysts said they expected the rouble to consolidate in the range of 63 to 64.5 against the greenback on Wednesday.

Attention will be on Finance Minister Anton Siluanov’s speech at a forum on Wednesday, after a US administration official said Washington was considering blocking Russia’s ability to pay its US bondholders by allowing a key waiver to expire next week. That could push Moscow closer to the brink of default.

Russian stock indexes were climbing.

The dollar-denominated RTS index (.IRTS) was up 1.3 per cent at 1,216.6 points, its strongest since Feb. 23. The rouble-based MOEX Russian index (.IMOEX) was 1.7 per cent higher at 2,466.2 points.

Veles Capital analysts said the focus on Wednesday could be on dividend stories. Shares in mobile operator MTS (MTSS.MM) jumped around 20 per cent after the company’s board recommended a dividend of 33.85 roubles ($0.5314) per share late on Tuesday.

REUTERS
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Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in Mariupol

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 formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the very expansion that 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 a total of 959 people had now lain 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 inside 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.

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area was quoted by a local news agency 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 bring a close to a near three month siege of the once prosperous city of 400,000 people, where Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians died under Russian siege and bombardment, many buried in mass graves.

Kyiv and Moscow had both said on Tuesday that around 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 re-opened prison, both in towns held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters journalists have filmed buses bringing captured fighters to both locations.

The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender, but high-profile Russian politicians have publicly called for them never to be exchanged, or even for their execution.

FINLAND AND SWEDEN APPLY TO 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,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say. Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about the new prospective members, especially their tolerance of Kurdish militant groups on their soil.

Stoltenberg said he thought the issues could be overcome. Washington has also played down the likelihood that Turkish objections would halt the accession.

Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join the alliance represents the biggest change in European security for decades.

In a stroke, it will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia, give NATO control over 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 abruptly climb down this week, saying in a speech on Monday that Russia had “no problems” with either Finland or Sweden, and their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

VICTORY

The steelworks surrender in Mariupol allows Putin to claim a rare victory in a campaign which has otherwise faltered. Recent weeks have seen Russian forces abandon the area around Ukraine’s second larges city Kharkiv, now retreating at their fastest rate since they were driven from the north and the Kyiv environs at the end of March.

Nevertheless, 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 supported since 2014.

Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, is the biggest city Russia has captured so far, and 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 deadliest 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 United Nations 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, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

REUTERS
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Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces who have surrendered after weeks holed up at Azovstal steel works drive away under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Mariupol, Ukraine May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

More than 250 Ukrainian fighters surrendered to Russian forces at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol after weeks of desperate resistance, bringing an end to the most devastating siege of Russia’s war in Ukraine and allowing President Vladmir Putin to claim a rare victory in his faltering campaign.

Reuters saw buses leave the steelworks, where defenders had held out in a complex of bunkers and tunnels, overnight and five arrived in the Russian-held town of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said the wounded would be treated.

What will happen to the fighters was unclear, although the Kremlin said Putin had personally guaranteed the prisoners would be treated according to international standards.

The denoument of a battle which came to symbolise Ukrainian resistance took place as Russia’s invading forces struggled elsewhere, with troops retreating from the outskirts of Kharkiv in the northeast.

On the international front, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sweden and Finland will on Wednesday hand in their respective applications to join NATO, abandoning their long-standing policy of neutrality over concerns about Putin’s wider intentions.

Their leaders expressed optimism they could overcome Turkey’s objections to them joining amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at smoothing their path into the 30-nation alliance.

Their move will bring about the very expansion of the Western alliance Putin invoked as one of the main justifications for what he terms his “special military operation”.

CITY IN RUINS

The complete capture of Mariupol is Russia’s biggest victory since its Feb. 24 invasion and gives Moscow total control of the Sea of Azov coast and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine.

But the port city now lies in ruins, and Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people were killed under months of Russian bombardment and siege.

Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, including 51 severely wounded. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left.

Russian defence ministry video showed fighters leaving the plant, some carried on stretchers, others with hands up to be searched by Russian troops.

While both sides spoke of a deal under which all Ukrainian troops would abandon the huge steelworks, many details were not yet public, including how many fighters still remained inside, and whether any form of prisoner swap had been agreed.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing that Kyiv would not disclose how many fighters were inside the plant until all were safe.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement.

“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said: “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Kyiv aimed to arrange a prisoner swap for the wounded once their condition stabilises, but neither side disclosed terms for any specific deal.

Natalia, wife of a sailor among those holed up in the plant, told Reuters she hoped “there will be an honest exchange”. But she was still worried: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”

In a statement on Monday, the Azov Regiment, the main Ukrainian unit that had held out in the steelworks, said it had achieved its objective over 82 days of resistance by making it possible to defend the rest of the country.

The regiment, now part of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces, originated as a far-right militia, and Moscow has portrayed defeating its fighters as central to its stated objective of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Russia blames them for mistreating Russian speakers, one of its war justifications, which Kyiv and its Western backers call a bogus pretext.

High-profile Russian lawmakers spoke out against any prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.” Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

The United Nations and Red Cross say the true death toll from the siege is still uncounted but it is certain to be Europe’s worst since the 1990s wars in Chechnya and the Balkans.

For months, Mariupol’s residents were driven into cellars under perpetual bombardment, with no access to food, fresh water or heat, and bodies littering the streets.

Two strikes – on a maternity ward and a theatre where hundreds of people were sheltering – became worldwide emblems of Russia’s tactic of devastating population centres.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have been buried in mass graves or makeshift pits in gardens, and Ukraine says Moscow forcibly deported thousands of residents to Russia.

Moscow denies targeting civilians or deporting them. operation”.

UKRAINE ADVANCES

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have been advancing at their fastest pace for more than a month, driving Russian forces out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.

Ukraine says its forces had reached the Russian border, 40 km (25 miles) north of Kharkiv. They have also pushed at least as far as the Siverskiy Donets river 40 km to the east, where they could threaten supply lines to Russia’s main advance in the Donbas.

Russia is still pressing that advance, despite taking heavy losses.

In Brussels, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that if reports were true, the Russian army had suffered “impressive losses” while invading Ukraine and it was unclear how long it could sustain its campaign.

REUTERS
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A worker installs lights at a van at a workshop that manufactures ambulances in Tirana, Albania May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Florion Goga

A small company in Albania is struggling to meet demand and produce the first batch of about 500 ambulances governments and agencies are planning to send to Ukraine.

“We were given only two weeks to manufacture 11 ambulances and ship them to Ukraine,” a job that usually takes two months, businesswoman Arjeta Puca told Reuters.

The company employing 14 people, including three from Turkey, has been asked to make hundreds of ambulances but is finding it hard to get vehicles in Albania.

“We have got requests to make up to 500 ambulances, including armoured ambulances but the problem remains that we can not find the vans,” Puca said on Tuesday at her workshop outside the capital Tirana.

The workers are taking new Ford vans and installing oxygen canisters, blue lights, sirens and other tools.

The first 11 ambulances were ordered by a United Nations agency and once finished they will be transported to Poland and on to Ukraine.

Puca, whose company Timak has manufactured ambulances for Albania and Libya, says the U.K. government has also shown interest in 50 ambulances.

The first deal with Ukraine may not have been the most favourable commercially, especially at such short notice, but Puca felt bound to take it.

“Our wish was to make our contribution for Ukraine … in these times you should not think only about money,” she said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, NATO member Albania has joined other European countries in introducing economic sanctions and banning Russian aircraft from its air space.

In early March, Tirana’s municipality renamed a street where the Russian and Ukrainian embassies are located as Free Ukraine to honour Ukraine’s resistance.

The war in Ukraine is a major topic of conversation when workers relax over a cigarette at the Timak workshop.

“From what we have seen in past days we sympathise with what is happening there and we work with a lot of passion here to make the ambulances ready for Ukraine,” said Izet Bytyci, a carpenter.

REUTERS