Families of Azov fighters in Ukraine worry about their fate

Natalia Zarytska (left), wife of an Azov fighter, and Natalia (right), mother of an Azov fighter, attend a press conference in Istanbul, on May 16, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (REUTERS) - Families of Ukrainian fighters who were in the Azovstal steel plant said on Friday (May 20) they are worried about the fate of their relatives, after Kyiv this week ordered its garrison in the plant in Mariupol to stand down.

At a news conference by a group of family members in Istanbul, Natalia Zarytska, wife of an Azovstal fighter who had surrendered, said she had not heard from her husband since a 10-minute message exchange on Telegram two days ago.

"So my husband messaged me two days ago and the situation is really hard and horrible and my husband is on the way from one hell to another hell, from Azovstal steel plant to a prison, to captivity," Zarytska said.

Zarytska also said she believes that her husband is still alive and that one day he will return home.

The group, comprising three wives and a mother of Azovstal fighters, have been in Turkey this week to ask the country to help secure the safety of the fighters at the steel plant.

Uncertainty now swirls over the fate of the fighters, who Kyiv wants returned in a prisoner swop. Some senior Russian lawmakers have demanded that some of the soldiers be put on trial.

Since ordering its garrison in Mariupol to stand down on Monday, Kyiv has given few details of what it describes as an effort to rescue fighters from Azovstal.

The commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment said in a video that civilians and heavily wounded fighters had been evacuated.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Azovstal had surrendered so far.

Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that number and Reuters has not been able to verify it.

Last Saturday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said Turkey had proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of wounded fighters holed up in the steel works.

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