Wives of Mariupol defenders appeal for soldiers’ evacuation

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ROME (AP) — Two Ukrainian women whose husbands are defending a besieged steel plant in the southern city of Mariupol are calling for any evacuation of civilians to also include soldiers, saying they fear the troops will be tortured and killed if left behind and captured by Russian forces.

“The lives of soldiers matter too. We can’t only talk about civilians,” said Yuliia Fedusiuk, 29, the wife of Arseniy Fedusiuk, a member of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol. “We are hoping that we can rescue soldiers too, not only dead, not only injured, but all of them.”

She and Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, is the Azov commander, made their appeal in Rome on Friday for international assistance to evacuate the Azovstal plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic and now bombed-out port city.

An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders and 1,000 civilians are holed up in the plant’s vast underground network of bunkers, which are able to withstand airstrikes. But conditions there have grown more dire, with food, water and medicine running out, after Russian forces dropped “bunker busters” and other munitions in recent days.

The United Nations has said Secretary-General António Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on arranging evacuations from the plant during a meeting this week in Moscow, with the U.N. and International Committee of the Red Cross involved. But the discussions as reported by the U.N. concerned civilians, not combatants.

Speaking in English, Prokopenko, 27, called for a Dunkirk-style mission, a reference to the World War II maritime 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 kids,” she said. “We need to do this right now, because people — every hour, every second — are dying.”

The women said 600 of the soldiers are wounded with some suffering from gangrene. They provided grisly videos and photos sent by their husbands of men with amputated limbs, bullet wounds and other injuries. They said people are eating porridge, old cheese and rudimentary bread.

The Azov Regiment has its roots in the Azov Battalion, which was 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 elicited criticism for its tactics.

Fedusiuk said she and Prokopenko were seeking help from Europe, the United States and international organizations to find a diplomatic resolution to the Azovstal standoff.

And she said the troops would never surrender to Russian capture.

“We don’t know any Azov soldier who came (back) alive from Russian soldiers, from 2014, so they will be tortured and killed,” Fedusiuk said. “We know that definitely, so it is not an option for them.”

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.

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