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More Ukraine fighters surrender in Mariupol, Russia says

Almost 700 more Ukrainian fighters have surrendered in Mariupol, according to Russian officials, as the nearly three-month long siege in the Black Sea town nears an end.

More than a day after Ukraine announced it had ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remained unresolved.

Ukrainian officials declined to comment publicly on the fate of fighters who made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks plant, holding out as Mariupol was taken over by Russian forces.

“Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

Russia said 694 more fighters surrendered overnight, bringing the total number of people who had laid down arms to 959.

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, was quoted by local news agency DNA as saying the main commanders were still inside the plant.

It remained unclear if they would leave the plant, or possibly even fight a last battle with the Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials had confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but they did not say how many more were inside.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks but gave no details.

Surrendered fighters to face court
Mr Pushilin said the fate of the surrendered Ukrainian fighters would be decided by the courts.

Moscow says the Azov Regiment, which began as an extreme-right nationalist paramilitary organisation, is a group of radically anti-Russian nationalist fighters and casts them as neo-Nazis.

The regiment, formed in 2014 as a militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi, and Ukraine said it has been reformed away from its radical nationalist origins to be integrated into the National Guard.

The steelworks surrender allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory.

It also signals the approaching end of a near three-month siege of the port city of more than 400,000 people, where Ukraine said tens of thousands died under Russian bombardment.

Ukrainian officials have spoken of arranging a prisoner swap but Moscow said no such deal was made for the fighters.

Russia said more than 50 wounded fighters were brought for treatment to a hospital, and others were taken to a prison, both in Ukrainian towns held by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia’s Defence Ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.

Finland and Sweden formally apply for NATO membership
As reaction to the war continued to ripple across Europe, Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO, bringing about the very expansion that Mr Putin has long cited as a main reason for launching the February invasion.

Mr Putin said on Monday their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.

US ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told Sky News the accession process needed to be expedited.

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