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May 19, 2022, 7:05 p.m. EDT

Ukrainian troops surrendering at Mariupol registered as POWs

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By Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — The fate of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters who surrendered after holding out against punishing attacks on Mariupol’s steel factory hung in the balance Thursday, amid international fears that the Russians may take reprisals against the prisoners.

The International Committee of the Red Cross gathered personal information from hundreds of the soldiers — name, date of birth, closest relative — and registered them as prisoners of war, as part of its role in ensuring the humane treatment of POWs under the Geneva Conventions.

Amnesty International said in a tweet that the Ukrainian soldiers are now prisoners of war and as such “must not be subjected to any form of torture or ill-treatment.”

More than 1,700 defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have surrendered since Monday, Russian authorities said, in what appeared to be the final stage in the nearly three-month siege of the now-pulverized port city.

At least some of the fighters were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Others were hospitalized, according to a separatist official.

But an undisclosed number remained in the warren of bunkers and tunnels in the sprawling plant.

In a brief video message, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of the steel mill, said he and other fighters were still inside.

“An operation is underway, the details of which I will not announce,” Svyatoslav Palamar said.

While Ukraine expressed hope for a prisoner exchange, Russian authorities have threatened to investigate some of the Azovstal fighters for war crimes and put them on trial, branding them “Nazis” and criminals.

The Azov Regiment’s far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of an effort to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in the  first war crimes trial  held by Ukraine, a captured Russian soldier testified that he shot an unarmed civilian in the head on an officer’s orders, and he asked the victim’s widow to forgive him. The soldier pleaded guilty earlier in the week, but prosecutors presented the evidence against him in line with Ukrainian law.

In the Poltava region, two other Russian soldiers appeared in court Thursday on war-crimes charges that they shelled civilians. Prosecutors said both pleaded guilty. The next court session in their case was set for May 26.

Also,  more U.S. aid  appeared to be on its way to Ukraine when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion package of military and economic aid for the country and its allies. The House voted for it last week. President Joe Biden’s quick signature was certain.

“Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Taking the Azovstal steel plant would allow Russia to claim complete control of Mariupol and secure a long-sought victory. But it would be a mostly symbolic victory at this point, since the city is already effectively in Moscow’s hands and analysts say most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the battle there have already left.

Kyiv’s troops, bolstered by Western weapons,  thwarted Russia’s initial goal of storming the capital, Kyiv,  and have put up stiff resistance against Moscow’s forces in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that President Vladimir Putin has set his sights on capturing.

The surprising success of Ukraine’s troops has buoyed Kyiv’s confidence.

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