The bodies of some Ukrainian fighters killed defending the city of Mariupol from Russian forces at a vast steelworks have been handed over to Kyiv, the families of Ukraine’s Azov unit of the national guard said.
Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol were holed up in the Azovstal steelworks for weeks as Russian forces tried to capture the city. The Ukrainian soldiers eventually surrendered last month and were taken into custody by Russian forces.
There has been little information about the fate of the estimated 2,000 Azovstal defenders. Kyiv is seeking the handover of them all in a prisoner swap, but some Russian legislators want some of the soldiers put on trial.
It was not immediately clear how many bodies had arrived in Kyiv in this first such transfer.
Anna Holovko, a spokeswoman for the Azov Regiment, told the Associated Press news agency 160 Ukrainian bodies were turned over by the Russians, all of which were from the Azovstal ruins. She said that at least 52 of those bodies are thought to be the remains of Azov Regiment soldiers.
Maksym Zhorin, a former Azov Regiment leader now co-commanding a Kyiv-based military unit, confirmed that bodies from the steel plant were among those exchanged.
“It’s important to note that a third of the bodies [handed over] were Azov fighters, the affiliation of the other fighters to different units is being clarified,” the families of the Azov fighters said in a statement released late on Monday.
The AP reported that DNA testing was under way to identify the remains.
The brother of an Azov fighter missing and feared dead in the steelworks said at least two trucks of bodies from Azovstal were transferred to a military hospital in Kyiv for identification.
Viacheslav Drofa said the remains of his elder brother, Dmitry Lisen, did not appear to be among those recovered so far. He added that some of the dead were severely burned.
The mother of a soldier killed in an air strike on the plant said the Azov Regiment telephoned her and said her son’s body might be among those transferred to Kyiv. The mother did not want her or her son to be identified by name, saying she feared that discussing the recovery process might disrupt it.
She tearfully referred to her son as a hero. “It’s important for me to bury him in our Ukrainian land,” she said.
Russia casts the Azov Regiment, which led the defence of the steelworks at Mariupol, as a “Nazi” militia with “radical” far-right origins.
Ukraine denies that, saying the unit has been reformed and integrated into its armed forces.