Moscow on Thursday has released a statement that 1,730 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Mariupol over three days, including 771 in the past 24 hours, claiming a surrender on a far large scale than Kyiv has acknowledged since ordering its garrison to stand its own.
For decades, the main outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle has remained publicly unresolved, with no confirmation of the fate of the hundreds of Ukrainian troops who had held out in a vast steelworks at the end of a near three-months siege.
Ukraine, which is claiming that to secure a prisoner swap, has declined to say how many were inside the plant or comment on the fate of the rest since confirming that just over 250 had surrendered in the early hours after it ordered them to yield.
The leader of Russia-backed separatists in control of the area said nearly half of the fighters remained inside the steelworks, where underground bunkers and tunnels had protected them from weeks of Russian bombardment.
“More than half have already left-more than half have laid down their arms,” says Denis Pushilin.
He added, “the wounded had been given medical treatment while those who were fit had been taken to the penal colony and were being treated well.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have refused to comment publicly on the fate of fighters, as talks are underway behind the scenes to rescue them.
Russia denies that it has agreed to a prisoner swap for them. Many of the Azovstal defenders belong to a Ukrainian unit with far-right origins, the Azov Regiment, which Moscow calls Nazis and says must be prosecuted for crimes. Ukraine calls them national heroes.