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Russia says hundreds of Ukrainians surrender at Azovstal

David Stout - Agence France-Presse
Russia says hundreds of Ukrainians surrender at Azovstal
This screen grab obtained from a handout video released by the Russian Defence Ministry on May 17, 2022, shows Ukrainian service members as they are searched by pro-Russian military personnel after leaving the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol.
Handout / Russian Defence Ministry / AFP

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia said Tuesday that 265 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered after staging a last stand at the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, prompting Kyiv to call for a prisoner exchange.

Moscow claimed control of the strategic port city last month after a weeks-long siege, but hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers remained holed up in tunnels beneath the huge Azovstal industrial zone.

"Over the past 24 hours, 265 militants laid down their arms and surrendered, including 51 heavily wounded," the Russian defence ministry said.

Publishing images showing wounded soldiers being carried on stretchers, it said the injured were taken to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Finland — which shares a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia — voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the NATO military alliance.

The vote paves the way for a joint application with Sweden to be submitted on Wednesday, amid fears they could be Russia's next targets.

Meanwhile, Kyiv said negotiations with Russia on ending the near three-month war, which has killed thousands and sent millions fleeing, were "on hold", blaming Moscow for failing to compromise.

ICC deployment

Ukraine's defence ministry confirmed the soldiers had left Azovstal, expressing hope for an "exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible".

For those remaining in the warren of tunnels underneath the steelworks, it said it was doing "everything necessary for their rescue" — although a military intervention was not possible.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not answer questions about whether the Azovstal soldiers would be treated as war criminals or prisoners of war.

President Vladimir Putin "guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws," he said.

Ukraine has accused Moscow of war crimes during the conflict, notably in the town of Bucha near Kyiv, where AFP reporters saw at least 20 bodies lying in the streets after Russian forces withdrew in late March.

The International Criminal Court said Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, comprising 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff.

'Trying to stay alive'

Ukraine's army said holding the steelworks had delayed the transfer of 20,000 Russian troops to other parts of the country and stopped Moscow from quickly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhzhia.

"Eighty-three days of Mariupol defence will go down in history as the Thermopylae of the 21st century," presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said, referring to the last stand by the Spartans against the Persians in 480 BC.

Ukrainian forces have managed to fight the huge Russian army for longer than many expected, fortified by weapons and cash from Western allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron told Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky Tuesday during a telephone call that arms deliveries from Paris would "increase in intensity" in the coming weeks.

Zelensky said the two leaders also discussed fuel supplies to Ukraine, ways to export Ukrainian agricultural products and Kyiv's application to join the European Union, which Macron has said could take decades.

After circling the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Moscow has focused increasingly on the eastern region of Donbas.

Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are withdrawing from around Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, to be redeployed there.

But Kyiv's gains have come at a high cost, with villages gutted and destroyed by bombs.

In Ruska Lozova, just north of Kharkiv, Rostislav Stepanenko recounted to AFP how he had gone back to collect some belongings but returned empty-handed and stunned by the incessant artillery fire.

Asked what he did for a living, he joked he was "trying to stay alive".

'Shelling without stopping'

Ukraine says Russia is targeting Donbas areas including Severodonetsk, the easternmost city held by Ukrainian forces.

Control of Severodonetsk would grant the Kremlin de facto control of Lugansk, one of two regions — along with Donetsk — that comprise Donbas.

Russia's attempt to completely encircle Severodonetsk has been repelled, with Ukrainian forces blowing up railway bridges to slow their advance.

But Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday has said it was being shelled "without stopping" and two buildings at the city's general hospital had been hit overnight.

"We have 10 dead and three wounded in the region," he wrote on Telegram. 

Elsewhere, eight people were killed and 12 injured in Russian strikes on the village of Desna, in northeastern Chernigiv region, where a Ukrainian military base is located, emergency services said.

As well as mourning its recent war dead, Ukraine held Tuesday a solemn funeral in Kyiv for Leonid Kravchuk, who this month died aged 88 and led Ukraine to independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

An emotional Zelensky laid a wreath of flowers by Kravchuk's coffin, which was draped in a Ukrainian flag, while soldiers guarded the casket and a large photograph of Kravchuk stood behind them.

New NATO bids

Fearful of Russia's ambitions, Sweden and Finland are poised to give up decades of military non-alignment and join NATO.

Their bids must be unanimously approved by the alliance's 30 nations, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has objected, accusing the Nordic nations of harbouring terror groups.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has voiced confidence the bids will succeed and is due to meet Turkey's foreign minister in Washington Wednesday.

Western nations have also sought to punish Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions, with the EU mulling a ban on Russian oil.

Hungary is blocking the ban, citing the cost, and Putin claimed Tuesday Europe risked committing "economic suicide".

Many EU nations are also dependent on Russian gas but are in a quandary after Moscow demanded payment in rubles to circumvent the sanctions.

Finland's state-owned gas company Gasum said Tuesday Russia could cut gas supplies to the Nordic nation over its refusal to pay Gazprom in rubles. Russia has already stopped supplying electricity to Finland.

Italian energy giant Eni announced a potential workaround Tuesday involving opening two accounts with Russian energy firm Gazprom's bank. It proposed making payments in euros which would be converted into rubles through the Moscow stock exchange. — with Patrick FORT in Kharkiv and Dmitry ZAKS in Lysychansk

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As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes that Moscow and the West could find a solution to the raging security crisis over Ukraine, but also accused Washington of using Kyiv as a "tool" against Russia.

"I hope that in the end we will find a solution, although it will not be simple," Putin says, indicating he was ready for more talks with the West, which has accused Moscow of massing more than 100,000 troops on the border and plotting to invade Ukraine.

"It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine... but its main task is to contain Russia's development," Putin says. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

A ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain has sailed from Ukraine's port of Berdyansk, currently controlled by Russian forces, the region's Moscow-appointed official said on Thursday.

"After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tonnes of grain are heading toward friendly countries," Evgeny Balitski, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 8:46am

Britain pledges another $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine to help it fend off Russia's invasion, including air-defense systems and drones.

The fresh funds will bring Britain's total military support to Kyiv since the start of the war in late February to £2.3 billion, Downing Street says in a statement. — AFP

June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

A Russian missile strike on a crowded mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk killed at least 16 people, the head of emergency services says early Tuesday, sparking international outrage.

"The Russian strike today on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk is one of the most brazen terrorist acts in European history," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening broadcast posted on Telegram.

"As of now, we know of 16 dead and 59 wounded, 25 of them hospitalised. The information is being updated," emergency services chief Sergiy Kruk says. — AFP

June 27, 2022 - 1:20pm

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a "crime" not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

"You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying 'no swimming' — but you see someone drowning. It's a crime not to help. That's how I see it," he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a "patriot", he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

"I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help," he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea's passport law to leave as equivalent to a "traffic violation". — AFP

June 26, 2022 - 2:40pm

Indonesian President and G20 chairman Joko Widodo set off on Sunday to Europe where he said he plans to visit Russia and Ukraine and meet with the countries' leaders to urge peace talks. 

Widodo departed for Germany to attend as a guest for the G7 summit from June 26 to 27, and he will then go to the Ukraine capital Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

"The mission is to ask... President Zelensky to open a dialogue forum for peace, to build peace because the war has to be stopped," he told a press conference in Jakarta. 

The two leaders will also discuss the food supply chain "that needs to be reactivated" soon, Widodo said. From Kyiv, Widodo is scheduled to visit Moscow and meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. 

The visit to Moscow is planned for June 30, Indonesian authorities said earlier. — AFP

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