Ukraine fighters who defended Mariupol, now in Russian hands, are registered as prisoners of war
Red Cross says it's registered hundreds of fighters, as G7, UN officials meet on food insecurity
Updates from Day 85 of the invasion
- Red Cross registers hundreds of captured Ukrainian fighters as prisoners of war.
- EU exploring ways of using oligarchs' frozen assets to help re-build Ukraine.
- G7, UN officials meeting separately, with freeing Ukraine food exports top of mind.
- U.S. Senate sends $40 billion US Ukraine aid package to Biden for signing.
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 the Kremlin will 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 (POWs), 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."
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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. A separatist official said others were hospitalized.
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 defence 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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was working to ensure "that the most influential international forces are informed and, as much as possible, involved in saving our troops."
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 is set for May 26.
Also, more U.S. aid appeared to be on its way to Ukraine when the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40-billion US package of military and economic aid for the country and its allies. The U.S. House voted for it last week. U.S. President Joe Biden's quick signature was certain.
Mariupol and Moscow's war
Taking the Azovstal steel plant would allow Russia to claim complete control of Mariupol, a long-sought victory that would be mostly symbolic at this point, since the city is already effectively under Moscow's control and military 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 and have tied down Moscow's forces in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that President Vladimir Putin now has his sights on capturing.
The surprising success of Ukraine's troops has buoyed Kyiv's confidence.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who was involved in several rounds of talks with Russia, said in a tweet addressed to Moscow: "Do not offer us a cease-fire — this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal."
Do not offer us a ceasefire - this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal. Ukraine is not interested in new "Minsk" and the war renewal in a few years. Until 🇷🇺 is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money.—@Podolyak_M
"Until Russia is ready to fully liberate occupied territories, our negotiating team is weapons, sanctions and money," he wrote.
Russia, though, again signalled its intent to incorporate or at least maintain influence over areas its forces have seized.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin this week visited the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, large parts of which have been under the control of Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in February. He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying they would be part of "our Russian family."
Also, Volodymyr Saldo, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Kherson region, appeared in a video on Telegram saying Kherson "will become a subject of the Russian Federation."
In other developments, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke by phone on Thursday with his Russian counterpart for the first time since the war began, and they agreed to keep the lines of communications open, the Pentagon said.
Civilians, truck driver killed
On the battlefield, Ukraine's military said Russian forces pressed their offensive in various sections of the front in the Donbas but were being repelled. The governor of the Luhansk region said Russian shelling killed four civilians, while separatist authorities in Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed two.
Zelensky said 12 people were killed and dozens more wounded in the city of Severodonetsk, and attacks on the northeastern Chernihiv region included a severe strike on the village of Desna, where many more died and rescuers were still going through the rubble.
On the Russian side of the border, the governor of Kursk province said a truck driver was killed by shelling from Ukraine.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO in a matter of months, though objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt things. Turkey accuses the two countries of harbouring Kurdish militants.
U.S. President Joe Biden was meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the White House on Thursday.
"They meet every NATO requirement and then some," Biden said at the outset, adding that "having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance."
Apology at war crimes trial
At the war crimes trial in Kyiv, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a Russian tank unit, told the court that he shot Oleksandr Shelipov, a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian, in the head on orders from an officer.
Shishimarin said he disobeyed a first order but felt he had no choice but to obey when it was repeated by another officer. He said he was told the man could pinpoint the troops' location to Ukrainian forces.
A prosecutor has disputed that Shishimarin was acting under orders, saying the direction didn't come from a direct commander.
Shishimarin apologized to the victim's widow, Kateryna Shelipova, who described seeing her husband being shot just outside their home in the early days of Russia's invasion.
She told the court that she believed Shishimarin deserves a life sentence, the maximum possible, but that she wouldn't mind if he were exchanged as part of a swap for the Azovstal plant defenders.
Finance ministers for the Group of Seven leading economies, including Chrystia Freeland of Canada, were in Koenigswinter, Germany, on Thursday, to deal with the immediate effects of Russia's war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, overtaking their more ambitious plans to reform the global economy.
A refugee crisis, high inflation, food insecurity exacerbated by the war and climate change, and the ramifications of a multiyear pandemic are just a few issues drawing leaders' attention.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine and blockade of ports on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov has produced a sharp increase in food and energy prices that is contributing to a slowdown in growth and threatening global stagflation — when inflation and unemployment are high and economic output is low.
The two countries are huge exporters of wheat, barley and sunflower oil, with interrupted food and fertilizer supplies raising already high prices and threatening food insecurity in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
German Development Minister Svenja Schulze said after meeting her counterparts that the countries are launching a new Global Alliance for Food Security that is aimed in part at addressing the impact of the invasion. The World Bank is helping to implement the project.
Two days of meetings continue Thursday at the United Nations, also with a focus to help mobilize a global response to the food security crisis resulting from Russia's invasion.
Also Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union is looking into ways of using the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war.
The commission proposed on Wednesday a 9-billion euro loan to Ukraine to keep the country going as it struggles to fend off the Russian invasion and wants to set up a reconstruction facility for after the war.
"Our lawyers are working intensively on finding possible ways of using frozen assets of the oligarchs for the rebuilding of Ukraine. I think Russia should also make its contribution," she told ZDF television.
With files from Reuters