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Prisoner swap of Mariupol fighters uncertain as Moscow signals pushback – Reuters

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Ukrainian officials are seeking a prisoner exchange to return fighters who left the city of Mariupol to Russian-held territory in a negotiated surrender. But some Russian officials are now warning that an exchange may not be guaranteed.

Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters left the besieged Azovstal steelworks, their last stronghold in the southern port city. The Washington Post could not immediately verify the claim.

At least 260 fighters, many seriously injured and lying on stretchers, ended their week-long defense of the besieged facility on Monday as kyiv announced an end to the battle. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that another 694 Ukrainian fighters left the factory over the past day.

As Ukraine said delicate evacuation talks were underway, uncertainty loomed over the fate of fighters who emerged from the factory’s underground network, after Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war once “their condition stabilized”.

The bloody battle for Mariupol ends; Azovstal fighters evacuated

It is unclear how many remain at the Azovstal plant, which provided shelter for Ukrainian forces, including the far-right Azov regiment, as well as civilians who were rescued as part of a previous agreement. Ukrainian authorities previously said nearly 1,000 fighters were locked inside.

On Wednesday, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, whose forces are fighting alongside Moscow, said a court should decide the fate of fighters who lay down their arms, including “those who appear to be nationalists”. , according to a local news agency in the separatist region. He told reporters that there were plans to demolish the ruined steel mill.

Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also said that the highest level Ukrainian commanders had not yet left the Azovstal dam.

His comments came after a refusal by some Russian officials on the possibility of an exchange. In Moscow, the speaker of Russia’s State Duma, or lower house, Vyacheslav Volodin said on Tuesday that Ukrainian “Nazi criminals” should not be part of a swap, while a lawmaker has proposed a ban an exchange. Russian investigators said they would question Ukrainian troops for alleged crimes. And Russian news agencies said the prosecutor general had asked the country’s highest court to designate the Azov regiment as a terrorist group.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that the treatment of Mariupol fighters would be “in accordance with respective international laws”.

Still, there has been no definitive word on the possibility of a Russian senior leadership swap.

Mariupol steel plant evacuees describe brutality of long siege

After a barrage fell on the city, the Kremlin called the exit of the Mariupol fighters a victory. People who emerged from the factory said they survived the siege in a fetid sunless bunker as supplies of food and water dwindled.

Russia advanced into most of Mariupol over the weeks. The city, on the Sea of ​​Azov, helps secure a strategic land bridge between the Russian border and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it annexed in 2014.

Ukrainian officials credited Mariupol fighters and their desperate last stand with pinning down Russian forces in battle for weeks, preventing advances elsewhere.

What happened in Mariupol, the city besieged and taken by Russia?

Some pro-Russian social media users denounced the deal for their evacuation as giving kyiv a propaganda victory or called for the fighters to be killed. When the Kremlin presented the war against Ukraine as a quest to “denazify” the country, seeking to delegitimize the Ukrainian government as fascist, it was in part referring to the nationalist Azov regiment.

Prior to the evacuation, Moscow may have created expectations that Russian forces would destroy outgunned Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, according to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Some Russians may find it difficult to reconcile the triumphant message with the abrupt negotiations leading to a negotiated surrender,” he wrote in a daily assessment.

Annabelle Chapman and Amar Nadhir contributed to this report.

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