Baltimore Sun

Mariupol defenders’ unit is terrorist group, Russia says

- By Susie Blann and Suzan Fraser

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s Supreme Court declared Ukraine’s Azov Regiment a terrorist organizati­on Tuesday, a move that could lead to terror charges against some of the captured fighters who made their last stand inside Mariupol’s shattered steel plant.

Russia and its separatist allies are holding an estimated 1,000 Azov soldiers prisoner, many of them since their surrender at the steelworks in mid-May. Russian authoritie­s have opened criminal cases against them, accusing them of killing civilians. The addition of terrorism charges could mean fewer rights and longer prison sentences.

A terrorist organizati­on leader could receive 15 to 20 years, and group members could get five to 10, according to Russian state media.

In testimony journalist­s were allowed to view, witnesses appearing before the Supreme Court supported the proposed terrorism designatio­n, but most of the proceeding­s were held behind closed doors, so it was not known if any opponents testified.

“I can testify myself that Ukrainian snipers — Azov snipers — really shot civilians trying to escape the city” of Mariupol, Marina Akhmedova of the Presidenti­al Council for the Developmen­t of Civil Society and Human Rights testified. “I saw bodies lying on roads with my own eyes.”

In a statement, the Azov Regiment dismissed the ruling, accusing the Kremlin of “looking for new excuses and explanatio­ns for its war crimes.” It urged the U.S. and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state.

The Azov soldiers played

a key part in the defense of Mariupol, holding out for weeks at the southern port city’s steel mill despite punishing attacks from Russian forces.

Moscow has repeatedly portrayed the Azov Regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, but has publicly produced little evidence.

The regiment, a unit within Ukraine’s National Guard, has a checkered past. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades created to fight Russiaback­ed separatist­s in eastern Ukraine. The battalion drew its initial fighters from far-right circles.

While its current members reject accusation­s of extremism, the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s origins to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media has repeatedly shown what it claimed to be Nazi insignias, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.

Last week dozens of Ukrainian POWs, including fighters from the plant, were killed in an explosion at a prison barracks in Olenivka, an eastern town

controlled by pro-Russian separatist­s. Moscow and Kyiv have blamed each other, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture of the POWs.

Also Tuesday, a new round of U.S. sanctions targeting Russian elites included a woman named in news reports as Vladimir Putin’s longtime romantic partner.

The Treasury Department said the government has frozen the visa of Alina Kabaeva, an Olympic gymnast in her youth and former member of the state Duma, and imposed other property restrictio­ns. The department said she is also head of a Russian national media company that promotes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Also named in the latest sanctions package is Andrey Grigoryevi­ch Guryev, an oligarch who owns the Witanhurst estate, the second-largest in London after Buckingham Palace.

His $120 million yacht, the Alfa Nero, was also identified as blocked property. Also sanctioned was his son Andrey Andreevich Guryev and his son’s Russian investment firm Dzhi AI Invest OOO.

 ?? ALEXEY FURMAN/GETTY ?? The fiancee of a member of the Azov Regiment wipes away a tear as another woman looks on during a rally Monday in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, west of Kyiv.
ALEXEY FURMAN/GETTY The fiancee of a member of the Azov Regiment wipes away a tear as another woman looks on during a rally Monday in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, west of Kyiv.

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