Ukraine hopes to swap Azovstal steelworks fighters for Russian prisoners of war

Ukrainian servicemen after they were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant.

Ukrainian fighters extracted from the last bastion of resistance in Mariupol were taken to a former penal colony in enemy-controlled territory, as a top military official hopes they could be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war. However the Russian parliament planned to take up a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of Azov Regiment fighters, who held out for months inside the Azovstal steel plant while Mariupol was under siege, according to Russian news agencies, as a Moscow lawmaker said they should be brought to “justice”.

ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports on the end of battle fo Mariupol and what could now happen to the Ukrainian soldiers who have been evacuated

Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops holed up at Azovstal have handed themselves over this week, the Russian Defence Ministry said.

More than 260 left on Monday, and nearly 700 have exited since then. Many are wounded, and it’s not clear how many fighters still remain at the sprawling steel mill.

Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal steel plant - the last stronghold of Mariupol - were branded 'heroes of our time'. Credit: Dmitry Kazatsky from the Ukrainian National Guard's Azov Special Forces Regiment

Earlier, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, said negotiations for the fighters’ release were ongoing, as were plans to take out fighters who are still inside the sprawling steel mill.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “the most influential international mediators are involved” in the plans.

The troops in the waterside steel plant have been the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, which has been effectively in Russian hands for some time now.

In an unrelated development that could take the sheen off of any Russian declaration of victory in Mariupol, Sweden and Finland both officially applied to join NATO on Wednesday, a move driven by security concerns over the Russian invasion. Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the invasion in February in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion. However, he has seen that strategy backfire by driving the public in Sweden and Finland, traditionally non-aligned nations, toward the Western alliance. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the applications, which now have to be weighed by 30 member countries. Mariupol was targeted by Russia since the early days of the invasion.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday that Ukraine had bitterly contested the strategic port city, costing Russia time and troops as it sought to capture a land corridor from its home territory to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

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Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday that 694 Ukrainian soldiers handed themselves over in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 959. Seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers from the plant were seen arriving at a former penal colony on Tuesday in the town of Olenivka, about 88 kilometres north of Mariupol. While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word. They instead said the plant’s garrison had successfully completed its mission to tie down Russian forces and was under new orders. With the fighters’ departures, Mariupol is on the verge of falling under complete Russian control. Its capture would be the biggest city to be taken by Moscow’s forces and would give the Kremlin a badly needed victory, though the landscape has largely been reduced to rubble.

The port city of Mariupol has been one of the most shattered in the war. Credit: AP

The soldiers who left the plant were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

While Ukraine expressed hope that the fighters would be released, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said without evidence that there were “war criminals” among the defenders and “we must do everything to bring them to justice”. The operation to abandon the steel plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers signaled the beginning of the end of a nearly three-month siege that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of both defiance and suffering. The Russian bombardment killed over 20,000 civilians, according to Ukraine, and left the remaining inhabitants - perhaps one-quarter of the southern port city’s pre-war population of 430,000 - with little food, water, heat or medicine.