20 June, 07:00 PM

Captured Mariupol defenders alive, detention conditions unclear, says President’s Office

The Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are alive, but it’s difficult to say what their condition is, Andriy Yermak, Chief-of-Staff of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said in an interview with Ukrainian news outlet, published on June 20.

These defenders, including soldiers from the Azov Battalion, were captured by Russian forces following the fall of Mariupol and their surrender. They were ordered to do so, and seek medical treatment for their injuries.

“We know that they’re alive,” Yermak said.

“If you ask me about their living conditions, we’re looking into it. It’s unclear what conditions they live in. But we know for sure that they’re alive."

According to him, Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (HUR) is closely following the fate of the captured servicemembers. Communication with some of them has been established. Yermak insisted that Ukraine is focused on freeing all of the prisoners of war, so they could come home.

“I have a lot of hope that there will soon be some activity and we will start returning our heroes to Ukraine,” Yermak said.

What we know about Mariupol defenders

After two months of increasingly intense combat in the urban conditions of Mariupol, where the Russian army had an obvious advantage in the number of troops, Ukrainian defensive units retreated to the territory of Azovstal, a local steelworks.

The Russian army then encircled Azovstal, while Ukrainian servicemembers, consisting of the Azov Battalion and the National Guard, kept on defending Azovstal’s territory. Soon, they ran out of food supplies, medicine, clean water, and ammunition. Many were wounded, some quite severely.

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers with different degrees of injuries had to undergo very basic treatment in Azovstal’s bomb shelter, but needed further hospitalization, while some needed surgeries to be performed by medical professionals.

While encircled and sitting in Azovstal’s basement, Ukrainian troops asked the government to extract them, possibly to Turkey via the sea route. However, Russia didn’t agree to this or to any other evacuation options.

On May 16, the Azov Battalion released a statement saying that they’re executing a received order and are hoping for the support of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff explained: Azov received an order to keep their servicemembers alive by any means.

Then, the first group of Ukrainian soldiers started leaving the territory of the steelworks. During the night on May 17, 53 of them, with severe injuries, were transported to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a town in Donetsk Oblast that remains under Russian occupation.

211 of the remaining Ukrainian troops were evacuated to Olenivka, another occupied town in Donetsk Oblast. This operation was based on a ceasefire agreement and evacuation corridor.

The Ukrainian defenders were leaving Azovstal in groups and this took several days. Mission by the Red Cross, an international humanitarian organization, monitored this process, registering the identities of Ukrainian soldiers.

President Volodymyr Zelensky later disclosed that as many as 2,500 Ukrainian servicemembers involved in defending Azovstal were captured by the Russian army.

Ukrainian news website Ukrayinska Pravda provided almost the same figure: 2,449 Ukrainian soldiers were moved from Azovstal to Russian captivity. As of June 9, most of them were still located within occupied Ukrainian territory.

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said that there was no other option to save these people’s lives.

Later, Zelensky made a statement regarding the Mariupol defenders. In it, he mentioned there would be a swap exchange for releasing all of them. HUR was assigned to organize such a swap.

In his statement, Zelensky added that Russia would likely shy away from torturing the defenders, as their fate has received lots of publicity and is followed closely by humanitarian organizations.

In the beginning of June, 210 dead bodies of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in Ukraine. Most of these bodies were the corpses of soldiers who had participated in the defensive operation in Mariupol. 64 more dead bodies, belonging to those who were trapped on Azovstal’s territory, arrived a little bit later.

Releasing the defenders of Mariupol is an ongoing process that involves negotiations and diplomacy.

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