Two Ukrainian women whose husbands are defending a besieged steel mill in the southern city of Mariupol demand that any evacuation of civilians also include soldiers, saying they fear troops will be tortured and killed if left behind and captured by the Russian forces.
“Soldiers’ lives matter too. We cannot only talk about civilians,” said Yuliia Fedusiuk, 29, wife of Arseniy Fedusiuk, a member of the Azov regiment in Mariupol. “We hope that we can also save soldiers, not only dead, not only injured, but all.”
She and Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, is the commander of Azov, appealed on Friday in Rome for international help to evacuate the factory in Azovstal, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the port city. strategic and today bombarded.
An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders and 1,000 civilians are holed up in the plant’s extensive underground network of bunkers, capable of withstanding airstrikes. But conditions there have become more dire, with shortages of food, water and medicine, after Russian forces dropped “bunker busters” and other munitions in recent days.
The United Nations says Secretary General António Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to organize evacuations from the factory during a meeting this week in Moscow, with the involvement of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. But the talks reported by the UN were about civilians, not combatants.
Speaking in English, Prokopenko, 27, called for a Dunkirk-type mission, a reference to the World War II sea operation launched to rescue British and Allied troops surrounded by German forces in northern France.
“We can do this extraction operation…which will save our soldiers, our civilians, our children,” she said. “We have to do it now, because people – every hour, every second – are dying.”
The women said 600 of the soldiers were injured and some suffered from gangrene. They provided grisly videos and photos sent by their husbands of men with amputated limbs, gunshot wounds and other injuries. They said people were eating porridge, old cheese and rudimentary bread.
The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 by far-right activists at the start of the conflict in the east between Ukraine and Moscow-backed separatists, and which has drawn criticism for its tactics.
Fedusiuk said she and Prokopenko are seeking help from Europe, the United States and international organizations to find a diplomatic solution to the Azovstal standoff.
And she said that the troops would never surrender to the Russian capture.
“We don’t know of any soldiers from Azov who have (returned) alive from Russian soldiers, as of 2014, so they will be tortured and killed,” Fedusiuk said. “We definitely know that, so it’s not an option for them.”
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.