Interrogation, uncertainty for soldiers abandoning Mariupol

(AP) — Russia said Wednesday that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops at a giant steelworks in Mariupol have surrendered, abandoning their dogged defense of a site that became a symbol of their country’s resistance, as the battle in the strategic port city appeared all but over.

Ukraine ordered the fighters to save their lives — and said their mission to tie up Russian forces is now complete — but has not called the column of soldiers walking out of the plant a surrender. The fighters face an uncertain fate, with Ukraine saying they hope for a prisoner swap but Russia vowing to try at least some of them for war crimes.

It’s not clear how many fighters remain inside the stronghold, Ukraine’s last in a city now largely reduced to rubble. Both sides are trying to shape the narrative and extract propaganda victories from what has been one of the most important battles of the war.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian troops have now abandoned the Avozstal plant since they started coming out Monday. At one point, officials put the number of fighters holed up in the mill’s sprawling network of tunnels and bunkers at 2,000.The figures, if confirmed, suggest that Moscow might be within touching distance of being able to claim that all of Mariupol has fallen. That would be a boost for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

But already another setback loomed: Sweden and Finland both officially applied to join the NATO military alliance on Wednesday, a move driven by security concerns over the Russian invasion. Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the applications, which now have to be weighed by 30 member countries.

Beyond its symbolic value, gaining full control of Mariupol would also allow Russia to deploy forces elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is now bent on capturing. It would also give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, while depriving Ukraine of a vital port.For months, the soldiers have they defended the plant against the odds, but on Tuesday Ukraine’s defense minister said he had issued a new order to the fighters to “save their lives.”

“Ukraine needs them. This is the main thing,” Oleksiy Reznikov said.

What will now happen to the fighters isn’t clear. At least some have been taken to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine says it hopes they can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war and that negotiations are delicate and time-consuming.

But in Moscow, there are mounting calls for Ukrainian troops to be put on trial. Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the 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 a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.