Russia says nearly 700 more Mariupol fighters surrender; leaders still holed up

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MARIUPOL: Nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters surrendered at the Mariupol steelworks in the past 24 hours, Russia said on Wednesday (May 18), but leaders were reported to still be holed up inside, delaying the final end of Europe's longest and bloodiest battle for decades.

Finland and Sweden meanwhile formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the very expansion that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long cited as one of his main reasons for launching the "special military operation" in February.

Russia's ministry of defence said the surrender of 694 more fighters meant a total of 959 people had now lain down their arms at the vast Azovstal steelworks - last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in the city.

If confirmed, the Russian announcement would resolve much of the mystery surrounding the fate of hundreds of fighters inside the plant, since Ukraine announced on Tuesday it had ordered the entire garrison to stand down. The Ukrainian defence ministry, which has so far confirmed only about 250 having left the plant, did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area was quoted by a local news agency as saying the main commanders inside the plant had yet to surrender: "They have not left", DAN news agency quoted Denis Pushilin as saying.

The final surrender of Mariupol would bring a close to a near three month siege of the once prosperous city of 400,000 people, where Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians died under Russian siege and bombardment, many buried in mass graves.

Kyiv and Moscow had both said on Tuesday that around 250 people left the plant, giving little clue as to the fate of hundreds more believed to be inside. Ukraine said it would not reveal how many were there until the operation to rescue all of them was complete.

Ukrainian officials have spoken of hopes to arrange a prisoner swap for Mariupol defenders they describe as national heroes. Moscow says no such deal was made for fighters it calls Nazis.

Russia says more than 50 wounded fighters have been brought for treatment to a hospital, and others have been taken to a newly reopened prison, both in towns held by pro-Russian separatists. Reuters journalists have filmed buses bringing captured fighters to both locations.

The Kremlin says Putin has personally guaranteed the humane treatment of those who surrender, but high-profile Russian politicians have publicly called for them never to be exchanged...

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