Easy exit from the steel plant is considered unlikely for Ukrainian troops

GENEVA – With the evacuation of some civilians from the steel plant besieged by Russian forces in the port of Mariupol, attention is focused on the fate of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who are still inside weeks after the maze of underground tunnels and bunkers at the plant.

Considering both the able-bodied and the wounded among their ranks, their choice seems to be either to fight to the death or to surrender in the hope of being spared under the terms of international humanitarian law. But experts say troops are unlikely to be given an easy way out and may find it difficult to escape as free men or even alive.

“They have the right to fight to the death, but if they surrender to Russia, they can be detained,” said Marco Sassoli, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva. “It’s just their choice.”


Lori Blank, a professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta who specializes in international humanitarian and armed conflict law, said wounded fighters were considered “hors de combat” – literally “out of battle” – and could be detained as prisoners of war.

“Russia can allow wounded Ukrainian troops to return to Ukrainian areas, but it is not required,” she said.

The expanding Azovstal seaside factory is a key military target for Russian forces as the latest resistance in coastal southeastern Ukraine following a grueling, devastating siege of Mariupol.

The wives of at least two Ukrainian soldiers in Azovstal were in Rome, begging the international community to evacuate the soldiers there, arguing that they deserve the same rights as civilians.


Katerina Prokopenko, whose husband Denis Prokopenko commands the plant’s Azov Regiment, told the Associated Press that she had been missing from him for more than 36 hours before finally hearing it on Wednesday.

He told her that Russian soldiers had entered Azovstal and “our soldiers are fighting, this is madness and it is difficult to describe.”

“We do not want them to die, they will not give up,” said Katerina Prokopenko. “They are waiting for the bravest countries to evacuate them. We will not allow this tragedy to happen after this long blockade. “

“We need to evacuate our people, too.”

Ukrainian authorities also demanded that Russia offer Azovstal troops a safe way out – with weapons.

But experts say it would be almost unprecedented to simply allow them to roam free, not least because they could take up arms again and possibly cause Russian casualties.

“It is unlikely that Russia will allow Ukrainian troops to leave the plant with their weapons, and nothing in the law will require that,” Blank said in an email.


Instead, the Russian military called on troops in Azovstal to lay down their arms and come out with white flags. It says those who surrender will not be killed in accordance with international law.

However, the commanders of the Ukrainian resistance at the plant repeatedly rejected this. In a video from the plant, Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, said his forces were “exhausted” but promised that “we must hold the line”.

In the event that Azovstal’s fighters were to be captured, it is unclear whether Russia will meet its international law commitments on prisoners of war, given its alleged previous violations of the rules governing warfare and the lack of evidence of how treated Ukrainian soldiers is already in custody.

It is alleged that international norms were violated by both sides during the two-and-a-half-month war, as evidenced by killings of execution-style civilian killings that followed Russia’s withdrawal near Kyiv and the desecration of corpses. which may have been Russian troops outside Kharkov.


The protection of prisoners of war dates back generations, including the Liber Code of 1863, which was drafted during the American Civil War. Moscow itself benefited greatly from such rules during World War II, when Nazi forces sometimes applied them to Russian detainees.

According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war “must be treated humanely at all times” and may not be “subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments” which are not justified on health grounds. Meanwhile, members of the armed forces who are injured or ill “must be respected and protected in all circumstances”.

Unlike civilians, prisoners of war can be forcibly sent to other countries to prevent them from returning from the battlefield.

An 2016 interpretative document on the Geneva Conventions states that the medical treatment of prisoners of war is essential and “the face of a soldier who is wounded or ill and therefore not in combat is henceforth inviolable”.


However, there are differences in the interpretation of whether wounded fighters could be the target of war, said Sassoli, who was on a three-member team commissioned by the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe to travel to Ukraine in March.

The International Committee of the Red Cross plays a crucial and almost exclusive role in conflicts around the world, mediating between fighters on issues such as organizing prisoner exchanges and monitoring the conditions of detainees. Among other things, the ICRC collects the names of prisoners of war and reports to their governments and families.

However, the ICRC has not said whether it has met with prisoners of war in Russian custody since the start of the war on February 24, a silence that Sassoli said could be a “bad omen”.

Asked by the AP if the ICRC had visited military detainees, spokesman Jason Strasiuso said briefly: “The issue of prisoners of war is extremely important and we are working closely with the parties to the conflict on the issue.” He declined to comment further.


On Tuesday, Pascal Hund, the head of the ICRC in Ukraine, told reporters that only civilians were involved in a Russian-Ukrainian deal that led to the recent evacuations from Azovstal. And he expressed uncertainty that someone else could come out.

“The ICRC has little influence when it comes to a ceasefire agreement, and it is up to the parties to find an agreement and bring these people out,” Hund said. “We will continue to insist, even if hope is close to zero, we will just keep insisting – and we are ready to go there.”


Trisha Thomas of Rome contributed to this report.

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Easy exit from the steel plant is considered unlikely for Ukrainian troops

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