KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia has begun turning over the bodies of Ukrainian fighters killed at the Azovstal steelworks, the fortress-like plant in the destroyed city of Mariupol, where their last-ditch stand became a symbol of resistance against Moscow’s invasion.
Dozens of fighters’ bodies recovered from the bombed-out mill’s now Russian-occupied ruins have been transferred to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where DNA testing is underway to identify the remains, said Maksym Zhorin, a military commander and former leader of the Azov Regiment.
The Azov Regiment was among the Ukrainian units that defended the factory for nearly three months before surrendering.
It is not clear how many bodies might still remain at the plant, which was relentlessly pounded by surrounding Russian forces from the ground, air, and sea.
Meanwhile, Russian forces continued to fight for control of Sievierodonetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city that is key to Moscow’s goal of completing the capture of the industrial Donbas region.
And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow’s forces also intend to capture the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, home to more than 700,000 people, a move that could severely weaken Ukraine’s standing and allow the Russian military to advance closer to the center of the country.
“In the Zaporizhzhia region… there is the most threatening situation there,” Zelensky said.
The Ukrainian fighters’ dogged defense of the steel mill frustrated the Kremlin’s objective of quickly capturing Mariupol and tied down Russian forces in the strategic port city. The last Azovstal holdouts finally relinquished the plant in May, marching out without weapons and carrying their wounded.
The survivors’ fate in Russian hands is shrouded in uncertainty. Zelensky said more than 2,500 fighters who defended the plant are being held prisoner by the Russians, and Ukraine is working on getting them released.
The recovery of the fighters’ remains from the Azovstal ruins has not been announced by the Ukrainian government, and Russian officials have not commented. But relatives of soldiers killed at the plant discussed the process with The Associated Press.
The Ukrainian government’s Ministry for Reintegration of Occupied Territories on Saturday announced the first officially confirmed swap of their military dead since the war began. It said the two sides exchanged 320 bodies in all, each getting back 160 sets of remains. It gave no details on where the bodies were recovered from.
The exchange took place Thursday, on the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region.
The Avoz Regiment is a National Guard unit that grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades that arose to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Azov Battalion drew initial fighters from far-right circles.
Zhorin, the former Azov Regiment leader now co-commanding a Kyiv-based military unit, confirmed that remains recovered from Azovstal were among those exchanged in the swap.
The brother of an Azov fighter missing and feared dead in the steelworks told the AP that 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.
Bodies were recovered last week from the mill and some were severely burned, he said.
The mother of a soldier killed in a Russian airstrike on the plant said the Azov Regiment telephoned her and said that her son’s body might be among those that were transferred to Kyiv. The mother did not want herself 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.
“I’m just waiting for the body of my son,” she said. “It’s important for me to bury him in our Ukrainian land.”
In other developments on Monday, Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russia’s invasion loomed large over D-Day commemorations in France, where the 78th anniversary of the Normandy invasion was marked.
“The fight in Ukraine is about honoring these veterans of World War II,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
He added: “It’s about maintaining the so-called global rules-based international order that was established by the dead who are buried here at this cemetery.”
American D-Day veteran Charles Shay, 97, was at Omaha Beach to mark the anniversary of the June 6, 1944, landings and pay tribute to those who fell that day. Asked about the war raging on the European continent, Shay said, “It is a very sad situation.”
“In 1944, I landed on these beaches, and we thought we’d bring peace to the world. But it’s not possible,” he added.
Meanwhile, the president of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk People’s Republic said that the region’s supreme court is opening the trial of three British men alleged to have been mercenaries for Ukrainian forces.
If convicted on the charges, including of trying to seize power, the men could face the death penalty.
Russia also continued to pummel targets in Ukraine.
Russian warplanes fired long-range missiles to destroy a plant on the edge of the town of Lozova in the northeastern Kharkiv region that was repairing armored vehicles, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.
Russian aircraft hit 73 areas of concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment, while the Russian artillery struck 431 military targets, Konashenkov said. His claims could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian forces put up resistance in Sievierodonetsk.
“There are more of them, they are more powerful, but we have every chance to fight on this direction,” Zelensky said.