Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has compared the terms for a civilian evacuation allegedly put forward by Ukrainian troops besieged at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol to demands made previously by terrorists in Syria.
Speaking on Thursday, Peskov reacted to reports that the Ukrainian forces holed up at the plant wanted to exchange civilians held there for food and medicine.
Earlier an unnamed representative of the Russian Command in charge of the operation at the vast Azovstal plant made the claim to Russia’s Ria Novosti news outlet. The official told journalists that “we’ve seen such methods before, for instance in Syria,” where terrorists also tried to exchange people for food. According to the Ria Novosti report, “more than 200 civilians, including women, children and the elderly could be held in Azovstal’s underground tunnels and bunkers.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, who is the Chairman of Russia’s State Duma, also commented on the report on Thursday. In his Telegram post, he claimed that the “militants at Azovstal had suggested swapping the remaining civilians there for food and medicine.” Volodin also revealed the terms of the alleged deal – “fifteen hostages for a ton of food, as well as medicine.” He also added that the Ukrainian troops supposedly “warned that they would no longer release anyone to Ukraine,” but rather exchange for goods.
The Russian politician accused the Ukrainian forces of having first lured civilians into the steelworks, only to later use them as a human shield and trade for food. According to Volodin, the besieged pro-Kiev troops effectively equated a human life with 66.6 kilograms of goods. The Russian official claimed that the Ukrainian fighters were only interested in saving their own hides.
He described this behavior as typical of “terrorists.”
Russian forces claim to control the entire port city of Mariupol, except for the Azovstal steelworks – the last Ukrainian stronghold there.
The huge Soviet-era plant has an extensive network of fortified Cold-War-era bunkers and tunnels where Ukrainian soldiers, as well as nationalist battalions, have been besieged for over a month.
On April 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin called off an operation to storm the plant, fearing heavy casualties among Russian troops, and ordered instead to impose a complete blockade of the Ukrainian forces holed up there.
In recent days, however, reports have been coming in that fighting resumed at the steelworks. Ukraine’s Unian news outlet claimed on Wednesday evening that a former employee who had worked at the steelworks showed Russian forces “secret tunnels beneath the plant.” According to the report, Russian troops were trying to force their way into the bunkers but were facing resistance from the Ukrainian forces.
The Donetsk People’s Republic had earlier accused the Ukrainian fighters of using an evacuation ceasefire to take up new positions at the plant, which forced Russian troops to strike with artillery and aerial bombardment.
Russia attacked the neighboring state in late February, following Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, first signed in 2014, and Moscow’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The German and French brokered protocols were designed to give the breakaway regions special status within the Ukrainian state. The Kremlin has since demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.