Russian strikes continue, Ukraine says, as efforts underway to free Azovstal fighters

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister expressed hope that the 264 Ukrainian fighters evacuated from Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol will be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war.

Hanna Malyar’s comment at a briefing came after Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the evacuated soldiers “criminals” who must be “brought to justice”. Volodin said the Azovstal fighters should be excluded from any future exchanges, according to Interfax.

Malyar said Volodin’s comments were a political statement “intended as internal propaganda”. She said that from Ukraine’s perspective, the operation to evacuate more soldiers from the steel mills and the process of negotiating the fate of those who have already come out are ongoing.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said earlier that the Ukrainian fighters – including 53 “seriously injured” – were transported from the factory on May 16 and taken to Russian-held territory and that efforts were underway to evacuate those still inside.

The Russian Defense Ministry said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, 51 of them seriously injured.

Malyar said the seriously injured soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while 211 others were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Both areas are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.

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Months of Russian bombardment reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of civilians before Ukraine ceded control of the strategic Sea of ​​Azov port, where hundreds of soldiers and civilians had been locked up for weeks in underground bunkers in the sprawling industrial complex of Azovstal.

While Russia called it a surrender, Ukraine said the plant garrison had successfully accomplished its mission to pin down Russian forces and called the defenders heroes.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in a May 17 statement.

“The Supreme Military Command ordered the commanders of the units stationed in Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel… The defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” the statement added.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late May 16 that Ukrainian military and intelligence negotiators as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations orchestrated the evacuation.

“Ukraine needs its living heroes,” Zelenskiy said.

However, he warned that the Ukrainian fighters might not be released immediately, adding that negotiations over their release would require “delicacy and time”.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 17 that Ukrainian fighters who “surrender” would be treated “in accordance with international standards”, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed it.

Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier announced a deal for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a separatist-held town, while kyiv said Ukrainian fighters would be swapped for captured Russian soldiers.

Ukraine’s military leadership said defenders of Azovstal forced Moscow to station some 20,000 troops in Mariupol, preventing them from quickly capturing other parts of the country.

While the evacuation of the last Ukrainian defenders from Mariupol marked a defeat for Ukraine, Russian shelling turned the port of around 400,000 pre-war residents into rubble and rendered it unusable.

Britain’s military intelligence said in its May 17 daily bulletin that Russia’s growing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment in the conflict betrayed a limited ability to accurately identify targets and “a reluctance to risk flying regularly combat aircraft beyond its own front lines”.

The bulletin posted on Twitter indicates that in another theater of operations, the Chernihiv region north of kyiv, Russia’s heavy use of artillery destroyed or damaged around 3,500 buildings during its failed advance towards the Ukrainian capital.

About 80% of the damage was to residential buildings, the British bulletin said, warning that Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on heavy artillery bombardment in its bid to regain momentum in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military said Russia was “continuing its offensive” in the east of the country, adding that the “enemy was concentrating its main efforts on Donetsk” in the east.

Russia draws forces to Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in Lugansk region, analyst says says RFE/RL’s Donbass. Realities.

“We are now receiving circumstantial evidence that forces are concentrated in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area…which Russian forces are likely to try to encircle,” said analyst Kirill Mikhailov of the intelligence team on conflicts.

Ukrainian authorities said Russian shelling hit a hospital in Severodonetsk.

“Massive artillery shelling, including from tanks, continues in Severodonetsk. Severodonetsk hospital came under artillery fire. The building is almost completely destroyed. The number of casualties is being determined” , police said. mentioned.

The report could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov mentioned on May 17, in a speech to European Union Defense Ministers and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that Russia was preparing for a long-term military operation as its forces attempted to take control total from eastern and southern Ukraine.

The main efforts of the Kremlin are now focused on “encirclement and destruction of groups of Ukrainian armed forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the creation and maintenance of a land corridor from Russia to Crimea and the completion of the occupation of southern Ukraine,” Reznikov said.

He implored ministers not to let Russia prolong the conflict and called on them to coordinate arms deliveries to Ukraine.

“We want to defeat the enemy and liberate our territories as soon as possible,” he said. “That’s why we are very interested in receiving international help, in buying weapons as soon as possible and in the right quantities. We need tanks, armored vehicles, long-range weapons.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting that the European Union “will not let Ukraine run out of equipment”.

In Kyiv, Zelenskiy said he had a “long and meaningful” telephone conversation on May 17 with French President Emmanuel Macron about the war.

The two leaders discussed “the course of hostilities, the operation to rescue the servicemen from Azovstal and the vision of the prospects of the negotiation process”, Zelenskiy said on Twitter. He said he also raised the issue of Ukraine’s fuel supply.

Other topics discussed included increased French defense support, a sixth set of EU sanctions and possible ways to export Ukrainian agricultural products.

Macron told Zelenskiy that arms deliveries from Paris would “increase in intensity in the days and weeks to come”, according to a statement from the French presidency. The supply of humanitarian materials would also increase, the statement said.

The US State Department announced on May 17 the launch of a new program to capture, analyze and preserve evidence of war crimes and other atrocities.

The State Department mentioned the Conflict Observatory will encompass the documentation, verification and dissemination of open source evidence of the actions of Russian forces in Ukraine.

The new program, which is being set up with an initial investment of $6 million, will include satellite imagery and information shared on social media.

“This new Conflict Observatory program is part of a series of U.S. government efforts domestically and internationally aimed at securing future accountability for Russia’s horrific actions,” the State Department said in a statement. .

Meanwhile, Sweden signed a formal application for NATO membership on May 17, a day after Stockholm said it would seek membership in the 30-member western military alliance amid problems of security brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The move came a day after Finland also announced it was looking to join the alliance.

With reporting from Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC and TASS

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