Russia has said a further 771 Ukrainian troops have “surrendered” at Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steelworks, bringing the total number to 1,730 fighters this week, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it has started registering the Ukrainian prisoners of war who left the plant this week.
The Russian defence ministry said that 80 soldiers who surrendered in the past day were wounded and were being treated in hospitals in the Russian-held cities of Novoazovsk and Donetsk. Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said on Wednesday that more than 900 Azovsteel troops had been sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka but it was not immediately clear where the latest group to surrender had gone.
Ukraine has not commented on the evacuation of the soldiers since Tuesday, when Ukraine’s deputy defence minister stated that the soldiers would be swapped in a prisoner exchange, without providing further details.
It is also not clear how many soldiers remain inside the plant.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said on Thursday that more than half the Ukrainian fighters in the bunkers below the Azovstal steel plant have surrendered.
Pushilin also repeated statements made earlier by other Russian officials that the soldiers should be tried.
“Let them surrender, let them live, let them honestly face the charges for all their crimes,” Pushilin said.
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, earlier assured the combatants would be treated in line with international norms for POWs, though several senior Russian lawmakers demanded they be put on trial and one even called for their execution.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has not publicly commented on the fate of the soldiers since their evacuation started on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the ICRC said it has registered “hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war” this week from the Azovstal plant.
“The ICRC started on Tuesday 17 May to register combatants leaving the Azovstal plant, including the wounded, at the request of the parties. The operation continued Wednesday and was still ongoing Thursday. The ICRC is not transporting POWs to the places where they are held,” the Geneva-based humanitarian agency, which has experience in working with prisoners of war, said in a statement.
“In accordance with the mandate given to the ICRC by states under the 1949 Geneva conventions, the ICRC must have immediate access to all POWs in all places where they are held. The ICRC must be allowed to interview prisoners of war without witnesses, and the duration and frequency of these visits should not be unduly restricted,” the agency added.
Several Russian outlets and pro-Kremlin telegram channels reporter on Thursday that some Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal plant have already been transported outside of Donbas to Russian territories.
According to 161, a local news outlet, 89 Ukrainian soldiers have been transferred to a detainment facility in the Russian border city of Taganrog where they will face extremism charges in military court for fighting in the Azov regiment, one of the main forces defending the steelworks.
Readovka, an outlet with links to the Kremlin, said that the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, Cptn Svyatoslav Palamar, who during the siege of the plant made several video appeals urging world leaders to organise an evacuation, was transported to the Russian city of Rostov. The Guardian was not able to independently verify both claims.
The Azov regiment was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russia-backed forces in east Ukraine, and many of its original members had far-right extremist views. Since then, the unit has been integrated into the Ukrainian national guard and the regiment now denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi. The Azov movement has been used as a key part of the Russian propaganda narrative to justify the war in Ukraine.
Next week, Russia’s supreme court will hear an application to designate Ukraine’s Azov regiment as a “terrorist organisation”, opening the way for sentences of up to 20 years for those convicted of involvement.
Experts believe that a trial of the Ukrainian troops, described by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as “heroes”, would further complicate efforts to resume the stalled peace negotiations.