Ukrainian defenders emerge from Mariupol ruins to uncertain fate as siege ends

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Kyiv aimed to arrange a prisoner swap for the wounded once their condition stabilises, but neither side disclosed terms for any specific deal.

Natalia, wife of a sailor among those holed up in the plant, told Reuters she hoped “there will be an honest exchange”. But she was still worried: “What Russia is doing now is inhumane.”

In a statement on Monday, the Azov Regiment, the main Ukrainian unit that had held out in the steelworks, said it had achieved its objective over 82 days of resistance by making it possible to defend the rest of the country.

The regiment, now part of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces, originated as a far-right militia, and Moscow has portrayed defeating its fighters as central to its stated objective of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Russia blames them for mistreating Russian speakers, one of its war justifications, which Kyiv and its Western backers call a bogus pretext.

High-profile Russian lawmakers spoke out against any prisoner swap. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, said: “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged.” Lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in talks with Ukraine, called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should be executed.

The United Nations and Red Cross say the true death toll from the siege is still uncounted but it is certain to be Europe’s worst since the 1990s wars in Chechnya and the Balkans.

For months, Mariupol’s residents were driven into cellars under perpetual bombardment, with no access to food, fresh water or heat, and bodies littering the streets.

Two strikes – on a maternity ward and a theatre where hundreds of people were sheltering – became worldwide emblems of Russia’s tactic of devastating population centres.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have been buried in mass graves or makeshift pits in gardens, and Ukraine says Moscow forcibly deported thousands of residents to Russia.

Moscow denies targeting civilians or deporting them.


Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have been advancing at their fastest pace for more than a month, driving Russian forces out of the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.

Ukraine says its forces had reached the Russian border, 40km north of Kharkiv. They have also pushed at least as far as the Siverskiy Donets river 40km to the east, where they could threaten supply lines to Russia’s main advance in the Donbas.

Russia is still pressing that advance despite taking heavy losses.

Also on Tuesday, President Zelenskyy spoke by phone to French President Emmanuel Macron, who told him that French arms deliveries to Ukraine would intensify in coming days and that France was ready to respond to additional demands for help.

Macron also said Ukraine’s European Union application would be examined by EU members at a summit in June.

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