Tensions over fighters captured in Mariupol, as Russia threatens possible trials

Nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who had held out inside Mariupol's pulverized steel plant have surrendered, Russia said Wednesday, as the battle that turned the city into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew to a close.

Ukraine hopes to get soldiers back in prisoner swap, but Russia threatens to try some for war crimes

A Russian soldier is seen near the destroyed steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Updates from Day 84 of the war

Nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who had held out inside Mariupol's pulverized steel plant have surrendered, Russia said Wednesday, as the battle that turned the city into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew to a close.

Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war crimes charges pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. And Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.

An aerial view of the central district of the port city of Mariupol on Wednesday. (Andrey Borodoulin/AFP/Getty Images)

The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened port city face an uncertain fate.

Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.

Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters.

A cat walks by part of the damaged steel plant in Mariupol on Wednesday. The city — its pre-war population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders "must not meet the same fate."

Symbolic importance for Russia

It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant's labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.

WATCH | Steel mill soldiers face uncertain future: 

Fate uncertain for Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Mariupol plant

3 months ago
Duration 2:06
A weeks-long siege of the Mariupol steel plant by Russian forces has ended, with the remaining Ukrainian soldiers surrendering from their last stronghold in the city. Ukraine says their soldiers will be swapped in a prison exchange, but the Kremlin is accusing them of being war criminals, vowing to bring them to court.

The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow's forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.

Military analysts, though, said the city's capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow's control, and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.

Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin "Z" sign.

A Ukrainian battle tank drives on a street in Severodonetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday, during nearby mortar shelling. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. has gathered intelligence that shows some Russian officials have become concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are carrying out abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a U.S official familiar with the findings.

The Russian officials are concerned that the abuses will further inspire residents to resist the occupation and that they run counter to Russia's claims that its military has liberated Russian-speakers, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment.

Possible political concerns for Kyiv

For Ukraine, the order given to the fighters to surrender could leave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's government open to allegations that it abandoned the troops he described as heroes.

"Zelensky may face unpleasant questions," said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think-tank in Kyiv. "There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers."

A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.

Russia's main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering 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 — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.

The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn't take up the issue on Wednesday.

Rescuers work on Wednesday at the site of an apartment building destroyed by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press)

Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the outset of the war, which began on Feb. 24. The city — its pre-war population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed there.

During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theatre where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theatre.

Britain's Defence Ministry said Ukraine's defence of Mariupol "inflicted costly personnel losses" on Russian forces.

Men walk past a building on Wednesday in Soledar, Ukraine, after it was damaged by Russian shelling. (Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press)

Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelensky commented on Moscow's recent claims to have deployed new laser weapons in Ukraine. He said those claims reflected a desire to find an alternative to missiles, and likened them to Nazi Germany's claims of wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, as the tide began to turn against it during the Second World War.

A senior U.S. defence official said Wednesday that the U.S. has seen nothing to corroborate the claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment.

Zelensky also said Ukraine is determined to retake the southern cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Enerhodar and Mariupol.

"All of our cities and communities under occupation … should know that Ukraine will return," he said.

A man sits next to his horse during nearby mortar shelling in Severodonetsk on Wednesday. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Reported targeting of armoured train

The Ukrainian territorial defence force said Wednesday that Ukrainian fighters blew up an armoured train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol.

Reuters could not independently verify the claim. Russia's Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

Melitopol in the region of Zaporizhzhia lies in a belt of southern Ukrainian land that was occupied by Russian forces after they invaded.

The Ukrainian territorial defence, the reservist branch of the armed forces, said an explosive device detonated directly under a carriage carrying servicemen.

Their statement, published on Facebook, did not elaborate on the extent of the damage.

U.S. reopens embassy 

In other developments, the U.S. Embassy reopened in Kyiv on Wednesday, one month after Russian forces abandoned their bid to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed.

A dozen embassy employees watched solemnly as the American flag was raised.

"The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia's unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the embassy once again," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

Other Western countries have been reopening their embassies in Kyiv as well.

Russia, meanwhile, moved to expel 85 Spanish, French and Italian diplomats. Russia and a host of European countries have been throwing out each other's diplomats since the invasion.

The United Nations chief said Wednesday he is in "intense contact" with Russia and other countries to stop escalating global hunger exacerbated by the war in Ukraine by allowing the export of grain stored in Ukrainian ports and ensuring Russian food and fertilizers have unrestricted access to world markets.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he's hopeful after discussions with Moscow, Ukraine, Turkey, the U.S., the  European Union and other key countries.

Guterres said Ukraine and Russia together produce almost a third of the world's wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil, and Russia and its ally Belarus are the world's number two and three producers of potash, a key ingredient of fertilizer. Canada is the world's top producer of potash

The secretary general said the number of people facing severe food insecurity has doubled in just two years.

A woman walks her dog outside the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from Reuters