Fears are growing for hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who are in Russian captivity after abandoning the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, as prominent figures in Moscow suggest they be treated as terrorists, barred from prisoner swaps, and made subject to the death penalty.
Several buses carrying Ukrainian troops left the devastated factory on Tuesday under Russian guard, a day after another convoy carried some of their comrades to Moscow-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine said on Monday that more than 250 Ukrainian troops, including dozens of wounded, would be taken from Azovstal.
Officials in Kyiv say the soldiers, many of whom are from the Azov regiment of Ukraine's national guard, will be exchanged for Russians captured during almost 12 weeks of fighting since the Kremlin launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the captives will be treated "in accordance with international law", but it is not clear that Russia will classify them as prisoners of war, given that it describes its invasion as a "special military operation" to rid Ukraine of neo-Nazis and has long portrayed Azov fighters as bloodthirsty ultranationalists.
The office of Russia’s prosecutor general asked the country’s supreme court on Tuesday to formally denote the Azov regiment as a “terrorist organisation”, in a case that judges are scheduled to hear on May 26th.
In Russia's lower house of parliament, meanwhile, deputy Anatoly Wasserman said there should be a ban on any exchange of "Nazi criminals" for Russian troops captured in Ukraine.
“You are right to make the proposal, Nazi criminals should not be exchanged. These are war criminals, we must do everything to bring them to justice,” replied the speaker of the house, Vyacheslav Volodin.
Leonid Slutsky, another prominent deputy who is also a negotiator in Russia's stalled talks with Ukraine, said his country should consider ending its moratorium on the death penalty to deal with Azov soldiers whom he described as "beasts in human form".
“They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed, and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,” he said.
Azov grew out of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement but has broadened its membership and distanced itself from politics as part of the national guard in Ukraine, which is a pro-western democracy where far-right parties are small and marginal.
"I want to emphasise: Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every rational person will understand these words," Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said of the decision to abandon Azovstal after a long and bloody siege.
“The operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol was started by our military and intelligence officers. To bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy and time.”
Ukraine says its stubborn defence of Azovstal's vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers tied up Russian troops in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, hampering their bid to capture the surrounding Donbas region and the city and province of Kharkiv further north.
Intense artillery exchanges and gun battles continue along the front line in Donbas, and long-range Russian missiles frequently strike Ukrainian towns and cities far from the front line; officials said eight people were killed and 12 hurt in an air strike on the northern village of Desna on Tuesday.