More than 1,000 Ukrainian marines defending the besieged port city of Mariupol have surrendered, Moscow has said as the presidents of four countries bordering Russia head to Kiev in a demonstration in support of Ukraine.
In one of the war’s most critical battles, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that 1,026 soldiers from Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, including 162 officers, had “voluntarily laid down their weapons” near the city’s Ilyich iron and steel plant.
There was no independent confirmation of the claim. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it had no information on the surrender, and the Ukrainian military command said only that Russian forces were attacking the Azovstal industrial area and the port.
The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who says his forces play a major role in the battle, urged the last Ukrainians inside Azovstal to surrender. The 26th Marine Brigade had said on Monday that it was preparing for a final battle in Mariupol.
The city, the main target not yet brought under Russian control in the eastern Donbas region, has been besieged and largely reduced to ruins during Moscow’s seven-week invasion. The city’s mayor has said 21,000 civilians are dead.
Its conquest would mark the first fall of a major Ukrainian city and would help Russia secure a land passage between the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbas and Crimea, which Moscow occupied and annexed in 2014.
The Polish and Baltic presidents were on their way to the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday by train to show support for the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his warring troops in what Polish presidential adviser Jakub Kumoch called “this crucial moment for the country.”
The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, Estonia’s Alar Karis, Gitanas Nausėda from Lithuania and Latvia’s Egils Levits met in the Polish city of Rzeszów near the Ukrainian border. “On the way to Kiev with a strong message of political support and military assistance,” Nausėda tweeted from the station.
The program for the visit of the leaders of four NATO member states – who fear they could be exposed to Russian attacks if Ukraine falls – was not revealed for security reasons, but will focus on ways to help civilians and the military in Ukraine as well as with the investigation of war crimes, said a spokesman for the Estonian Presidency.
It follows Kyiv’s reported refusal to meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who visited Poland on Tuesday and said he had planned to move on to Ukraine but “was not wanted”. The former German foreign minister faces harsh criticism for his past policies with rapprochement with Moscow.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “annoyed” that Steinmeier had not been received in Kiev.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday refused to repeat Joe Biden’s accusation that Russia was committing “genocide” against Ukrainians, warning that verbal escalations would not help end the war.
The US president said on Tuesday that it had “become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to obliterate the idea of being able to be Ukrainian himself”. Macron said it was important for leaders to be careful about language.
“I would say that Russia unilaterally unleashed the most brutal war, that it has now been established that war crimes were committed by the Russian army, and that it is now necessary to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” he said. he.
On Wednesday, without providing evidence, Zelenskiy told Estonian MPs that Russia used phosphorus bombs in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces in Mariupol said a drone had dropped a toxic substance on the city, but there has been no independent confirmation that Russia was using banned chemical weapons.
While Russian troops have largely withdrawn from the entire Ukrainian capital in the face of fierce resistance and logistical problems, Western officials and analysts say the invading force is preparing a major offensive in the east.
Military experts say local support, logistics, the terrain in the region and Moscow’s appointment of a new senior general, Aleksandr Dvornikov, could improve the performance of a force that Britain’s defense ministry said on Wednesday had been “hampered by inability”. to stick together and coordinate ”.
The Russian withdrawal from around Kiev has led to the discovery of a large number of apparently massacred civilians, which has drawn international condemnation and calls for an investigation into war crimes. Kyiv district police chief said on Wednesday that 720 bodies had been found around the capital, with more than 200 missing.
Moscow has dismissed all allegations of atrocities, and Vladimir Putin dismissed the reports as “false”. The Russian president said on Tuesday that Moscow would “rhythmically and calmly” continue its operation, which according to the UN has so far driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including more than 4.6 million who have fled abroad.