KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — Ukraine was seeking to evacuate the last soldiers holed up at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol on Wednesday, its president said, as the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier since the invasion began was set to get under way in Kyiv.
On the international stage, Finland and Sweden were expected to formally submit a joint application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance, a historic reversal of their traditional policy of non-alignment.
As the war nears its third month, Azovstal has become emblematic of the fierce Ukrainian resistance that has repelled the Russian invasion far more effectively than most initially expected, and forced President Vladimir Putin to recalibrate his military aims from taking the capital Kyiv to focusing on the east of the country.
A unit of soldiers had been holding out in the Mariupol plant’s underground maze of tunnels, stalling Russia’s progress through surrounding territory, but on Tuesday Moscow said more than 260 had now surrendered.
Kyiv’s defense ministry said it would do “everything necessary” to rescue the undisclosed number of personnel still in the steelworks, but admitted there was no military option available.
“The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address. “The most influential international mediators are involved.”
His adviser Oleksiy Arestovich said they would not comment further while the operation was ongoing, in an interview with local television.
“Everything is too fragile there and one careless word can destroy everything,” he said.
Those who have left Azovstal were taken into Russian captivity, including 51 who were heavily wounded, the Russian defense ministry said.
The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.
The defense ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an “exchange procedure… to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible.”
But their fate was unclear, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.
Putin “guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws,” Peskov said.
First war crimes trial
However, Russian forces have been accused of committing a multitude of war crimes since the invasion began.
On Wednesday a 21-year-old soldier will go on trial in Kyiv in the first attempt to prosecute the alleged abuses.
Vadim Shishimarin, from Irkutsk in Siberia, is accused of shooting an unarmed civilian and faces a possible life sentence.
Prosecutors said Shishimarin was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack.
He and four other soldiers stole a car and were traveling through the Sumy region when they encountered a 62-year-old man on a bicycle.
Ordered by one of his companions to kill the cyclist, Shishimarin fired a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the window of the vehicle and “the man died instantly, a few dozen metres from his home,” the statement said.