Ukraine: Talks with Russia on freeing Azovstal defenders very complex

REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
Smoke rises above a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 13, 2022.

(Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday said talks with Russia on getting wounded defenders out of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol were very complex, adding Kyiv was using influential intermediaries.

Russian forces have been constantly bombarding the steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, the last bastion of hundreds of Ukrainian defenders in a city almost completely controlled by Russia after more than two months of a siege.

Ukraine, saying there is no military solution to the standoff, has proposed evacuating 38 of the most severely wounded defenders. If Moscow allows them out, Kyiv says it will release a number of Russian prisoners of war.

“At the moment very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission – the removal of the badly wounded, medics. We are talking about a large number of people,” Zelenskiy said in a late night address.

“Of course, we are doing everything to evacuate all the others, every one of our defenders. We’ve already involved everyone around the world who could be the most influential intermediaries,” he added, without giving details.

Russia, which had initially insisted the defenders give themselves up, has said little publicly about the talks.

Many of those still in the plant are members of the Azov Regiment. Deputy commander Sviatoslav Palamar on Friday said his forces would continue to resist as long as they could.

“We have a problem with ammunition, with food, with water, with medicines,” he told an online forum streamed on YouTube.

“Our enemy, supported by planes and artillery, continues to attack. They continue their assault on our positions but we continue to repel them,” he said, calling on the United States to help evacuate the wounded fighters.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk earlier said the results of the talks “may not be to everyone’s liking, but our task is to evacuate our boys. All of them. Alive.”