Fears are today mounting for the surrendered heroes of Mariupol as it is revealed they are being taken to a hell-hole ‘concentration camp’ on Russian-held territory.
Witnesses say at least seven bus-loads filled with Ukrainian troops taken captive after surrendering to Russian troops at the Azovstal steel works have arrived in the town of Olenvika, where they were taken to a penal colony.
The facility – named ‘corrective prison colony No. 52’ – was already being used to house Ukrainians deemed ‘unreliable’ by Russian security services, described by an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol as a ’21st century concentration camp’.
Inmates including the wives of soldiers, journalists and former government workers have described being starved, tortured, and threatened with execution at the cramped camp – which was built for 850 people but now houses more than 3,000.
Interrogation sessions by Russian FSB agents can last for hours, according to a report by Ukraine’s human right commissioner, with the aim of getting prisoners to sign papers admitting to ‘collaboration’ with the Ukrainian ‘regime’.
Some of those subjected to the interrogations simply disappear amid rumours they are being sent to even worse prisons such as one at Izolyatsia, where the UN has documented cases of electroshock torture, mock executions, and sexual violence.
Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are being evacuated from Mariupol after surrendering, with witnesses saying seven bus-loads have been taken to a Russian penal colony in Donbas
The colony (pictured) has been branded a ‘concentration camp’ by Ukrainian officials who say inmates are being starved, tortured and threatened with execution
Kyiv says the soldiers – who held out for 82 days against a brutal Russian siege – agreed to surrender late Monday on the understanding they would be traded back to their home country in a prisoner swap.
It is thought the UN and Red Cross – which helped facilitate the evacuation of civilians from Mariupol 10 days beforehand – are working in the background to ensure the pledge is honoured.
Russia says 959 soldiers have now been taken out of the plant, including 694 over the last 24 hours.
But the news sparked almost immediate calls within Russia for any exchange to be outlawed so the soldiers can be ‘brought to justice’ for ‘war crimes’.
Russian MPs branded the troops – who include members of the Azov Battalion which was founded by neo-Nazi groups – ‘fascists’ and ‘lower than animals’ with one even going so far as to say they should face the death penalty.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said negotiations for the fighters’ release were ongoing, branding calls for their execution ‘propaganda’ produced for a ‘domestic audience’.
‘We very much hope for a positive result,’ she told the BBC.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said ‘the most influential international mediators are involved’ in plans to rescue fighters still remaining in the plant.
He said the operation to rescue the last defenders was ‘delicate’ and would ‘take time’, without revealing how many people still need to come out.
It is unclear exactly what prompted the surrender of the Mariupol garrison, which was holed up inside the sprawling Azovstal complex and had endured weeks under heavy Russian bombardment.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the garrison, revealed that the order to surrender came from military top brass – though did not say why it was give. He had previously vowed to fight to the death.
959 Ukrainian troops holed up inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol (pictured) have now surrendered, Russia says, with more still to come out
Kyiv insists the men surrendered on the understanding they would be traded back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap, and say negotiations to get them back are ongoing
Russia views many of Azovstal’s defenders as neo-Nazis because of the battalion’s historic links to the far right, and has called for them to face the death penalty
Russian forces have been fighting for almost three months to seize control of Mariupol against a dogged defence that has inflicted heavy casualties
Buses carrying Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at Azovstal are driven away in buses under the guard of Russian armoured vehicles
Russian troops and an attack helicopter keep watch as buses carrying evacuated Azovstal soldiers leave the port city of Mariupol
It is thought Zelensky had been telling the fighters for weeks that they should ‘give up if you feel you must’ and not to ‘feel you must give your lives in this fight.’
But time and again his plea was rebuffed, the BBC reports, by soldiers who felt sure they would be killed or tortured if they fell into Russian hands.
Anna, whose brother was inside the plant, told me on Tuesday: ‘There are many concerns about how [the fighters] will be treated and whether they’ll manage to survive until a swap [happens].’
Oksana, the wife of a fighter, said: ‘It’s very worrying for me and others that they were evacuated to Russian-controlled territory… We’re very, very worried about the things that can happen to them.’
Mariupol was targeted by Russia in 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.
‘Despite Russian forces having encircled Mariupol for over 10 weeks, staunch Ukrainian resistance delayed Russia’s ability to gain full control of the city,’ the ministry said. ‘This frustrated its early attempts to capture a key city and inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces.’
More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some of them seriously wounded and taken out on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and turned themselves over to the Russian side in a deal negotiated by the warring parties.
An additional 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 55 miles north of Mariupol.
Russian trucks and armoured vehicles marked with the ‘Z’ invasion symbol escort buses carrying Ukrainian troops out of Mariupol, after they surrendered
Rescue missions to get the last of Ukraine’s soldiers out of the Azovtal complex are still ongoing, with President Zelensky saying they will ‘take time’
While Russia called it a surrender, the Ukrainians avoided that word and 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 was 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 soldiers who left the plant were searched by Russian troops, loaded onto buses and taken to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. More than 50 of the fighters were seriously wounded, according to both sides.
It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka or their legal status.
While both Mariupol and Olenivka are officially part of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Olenivka has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014 and forms part of the unrecognised ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’.
Footage shot by the Associated Press showed that the convoy was escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin ‘Z’ sign, as Soviet flags fluttered from poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were seen in one of the buses.
Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said the Russian military was also holding more than 3,000 civilians from Mariupol at another former penal colony near Olenivka.
Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova said most civilians are held for a month, but those considered ‘particularly unreliable’, including former soldiers and police, are held for two months. The detainees include about 30 volunteers who delivered humanitarian supplies to Mariupol while it was under siege, she said.
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’.
A member of the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol sits on a bus as he is taken out of the city after commanders gave the order to surrender
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the 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 a terrorist organisation. The regiment has links to the far right.
The operation to abandon the steel plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers signalled 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 more than 20,000 civilians, according to Ukraine, and left the remaining inhabitants – perhaps a quarter of the southern port city’s pre-war population of 430,000 – with little food, water, heat or medicine.
During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal air strikes on a maternity hospital and a theatre where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theatre.
Gaining full control of Mariupol, in the south of the eastern Donbas region, would be more of a symbolic boost for Mr Putin than a military win, said retired French Vice Admiral Michel Olhagaray, a former head of France’s centre for higher military studies.
‘Factually, Mariupol had already fallen,’ he said.
But because of the Azovstal defenders’ ‘incredible resistance’, Ukraine can also claim that it came out on top, he said.
‘Both sides will be able take pride or boast about a victory – victories of different kinds,’ he said.