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Nearly 1000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who had held out inside Mariupol’s pulverised steel plant have surrendered, Russia said, as the battle that turned the city into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close.
The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks on Wednesday after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened port city face an uncertain fate.

Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

A Ukrainian soldier is searched by his Russian captor after surrendering in Mariupol. (AP)

While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate”.

It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2000 were believed to be holed up at one point.

A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.

The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol.

Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow’s forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

Military analysts, though, said the city’s capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.

In this photo released by the Russian Defence Ministry, a wounded Ukrainian servicemen awaits treatment in a hospital in Novoazovsk, Ukraine, a territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. (AP)

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.

Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.

Mariupol’s defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.

Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

It also would allow Russia to focus fully on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial east.

For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government open to allegations it abandoned the troops he described as heroes.

“Zelenskyy may face unpleasant questions,” Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think-tank in Kyiv, said.

“There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”

A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.

Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.

Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organisation.

The regiment has roots in the far right.

Kit bags of captured Ukrainian soldiers are searched by Russian troops in the city of Mariupol. (AP)

The US has gathered intelligence that shows some Russian officials have become concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are carrying out abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a US official familiar with the findings.

The Russian officials are concerned that the abuses will further inspire residents to resist the occupation and that the treatment runs counter to Russia’s claims that its military has liberated Russian speakers, according to the official, who was not authorised to comment.

Zelenskyy’s moving message as ‘Ukrainian heroes’ evacuated from steel mill

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