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Heroic Ukrainian soldiers forced to surrender after holding out in the besieged city of Mariupol for months have been sent to Russia, sparking new fears for their safety.
More than 1,000 fighters, most of them from the Azov battalion, ‘have been transferred to the territory of the Russian federation for investigative actions,’ state media reported late Tuesday.
Russia considers the Azov battalion to be Nazis and war criminals and lawmakers have called for them to face the death penalty. Kyiv says they are prisoners of war and should be exchanged for captured Russians.
Worryingly, a law enforcement source who spoke to Russian state media described some of the soldiers as ‘foreign mercenaries’ – meaning they would be exempt from international laws that protect PoWs from capital punishment.
The news emerged as Kyiv said Russia has turned over the bodies of 210 soldiers who died defending Mariupol, in exchange for the remains of 160 of its own troops.
More than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at Mariupol last month have been transferred to Russia, where politicians have called for the death penalty (pictured in May)
Kyiv says the soldiers laid down their arms with the expectation they would be traded back in a prisoner swap, and is working to make that happen (pictured in May)
Among the bodies are said to be at least 50 members of the Azov battalion.
It is thought around 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered at Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works last month, having held out for 82 under a brutal Russian siege that is thought to have killed up to 50,000 civilians.
They were initially taken to Russian-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region, including several hundred who were sent to a hellhole ‘concentration camp’.
Kyiv said the men surrendered on the understanding they would be traded back in a prisoner swap, but Moscow has so-far showed no interest in that.
The news that the soldiers are now being sent deeper into Russia further compounds fears that they will be subjected to show trials and possibly execution.
Azov battalion and its soldiers are central to Russia’s mythos that Ukraine as a whole is in thrall to a fascist regime that it is trying to overthrow and ‘de-Nazify’.
The battalion was founded by neo-Nazis and some of its soldiers have been seen wearing far-right patches, though commanders now disavow those links and claim to have severed ties with fascist ideology.
Kyiv’s forces held out for 82 days under a brutal Russian siege of Mariupol and its central Azovstal steel works before surrendering last month (pictured)
The surrendered soldiers (pictured being searched) had previously been held in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, including at a ‘concentration camp’
Russia had been unable to dislodge Ukraine’s forces from the Azovstal complex despite heavy bombardment, but they eventually gave themselves up after running out of supplies
Russian lawmakers have described the Azov battalion’s leaders as ‘war criminals’ and called for them to face trial.
Leonid Slutsky, a senior politician, took to his feet in a debate shortly after they surrendered to call them ‘lower than animals’ and say they should all be executed.
Mariupol is now fully in the hands of Russian forces, having been cut off from the rest of Ukraine early in the war and subjected to horrifying barrages and a siege.
Civilians were left without heat, food or water for weeks and described melting snow for something to drink before drinking from radiators when the snow ran out.
It was the scene of perhaps the deadliest single attack of the war when a Russian jet bombed a theatre with the word ‘children’ scrawled on the pavement outside, killing up to 600 people sheltering inside.
Thousands are known to have died in the siege, with their bodies often piled into mass graves hastily dug alongside roads.
But the true toll is thought to be far higher, with many families force to bury relatives killed by the shelling in plots dug into gardens and parks with no tally taken.
City officials estimate at least 20,000 civilians died, but others who remain in the city behind Russian lines and are now helping to dig graves said last week that the true toll could be as high as 50,000.
Mariupol’s pre-war population was some 450,000, meaning more than 10 per cent could have been wiped out.
Buses transport surrendered Ukrainian troops – many of them members of the Azov battalion – to camp on Russian-held territory
Russian troops patrol the streets of Mariupol following the siege, which has been largely destroyed by heavy bombardments
In his nightly video address on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces have made no significant advances in the eastern Donbas region over the past day and that ‘the absolutely heroic defence of the Donbas continues’.
Mr Zelensky added that the Russians clearly did not expect to meet so much resistance and are now trying to bring in additional troops and equipment.
He said the same is true in the southern Kherson region, which Russian troops occupied early in the war.
More than 31,000 Russian servicemen have already died in Ukraine, he added.
‘Since February 24, Russia has been paying almost 300 lives a day for a completely pointless war against Ukraine. And still the day will come when the number of losses, even for Russia, will exceed the permissible limit,’ he said.
Mr Zelensky also said Ukraine plans to release a special ‘book of executioners’ next week with confirmed information about war crimes committed by the Russian army.
He said those named will include not only those who carried out war crimes, but also their commanders.