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Russian President Putin visits the occupied city of Mariupol


KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first visit to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin arrived in Mariupol late on Saturday after visiting Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. Mariupol became a global symbol of resistance after Ukrainian troops with fewer weapons and fewer people held out in a steel mill for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May.

The visits, which showed Putin chatting with local residents in Mariupol and visiting an art school and a children’s center in Crimea, were a show of defiance by the Russian leader two days after a court issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes. .

Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which exacerbated his international isolation despite the improbability of facing trial any time soon. The Kremlin has rejected the move by the International Criminal Court as “legally void”.

The trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, which is expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter, then drove around the city’s “memorial sites,” concert hall and coastline, according to Russian news reports. State channel Rossiya 24 on Sunday showed Putin chatting with locals outside what appeared to be a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.

After his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city some 180 kilometers to the east, and conferred with General Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian army. operations in Ukraine. Peskov said.

Peskov told reporters that the trip was unannounced and that Putin intended to “inspect the work of the (command) post in its normal operation.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made it clear on Sunday in a conversation with the state agency RIA that Russia will remain in Mariupol. He said the government hoped to complete reconstruction of the devastated center by the end of the year.

“People are starting to return. When they saw that the reconstruction was going on, people started to actively return,” Khusnullin told RIA.

When Moscow completely captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained, out of a pre-war population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heating or electricity. Relentless bombing left row after row of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.

Mariupol’s plight first came into international focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops entered Ukraine. A week later, about 300 people were reportedly killed in the bombing of a theater that served as the city’s largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggested the true death toll could be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel mill in eastern Mariupol before surrendering. Their tenacious defense tied down the Russian troops and symbolized Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move deemed illegal by most of the world, and last September went further to officially claim four regions in the south and east of Ukraine as Russian territory, after referenda that defeated Kiev and describe the West as a sham.

The ICC on Friday accused Putin of personal responsibility for the kidnapping of children from Ukraine. UN investigators also said there was evidence of the forcible transfer of “hundreds” of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to Ukrainian government figures, more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled areas or to Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.

Peskov reaffirmed on Sunday that Moscow “considers any decision of the International Criminal Court as legally null and void”. While the move by the ICC was welcomed by Kiev on Friday, Putin is unlikely to stand trial because Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and does not extradite its nationals.

In Ukraine, local officials reported on Sunday that at least three civilians were killed and at least 19 others wounded by Russian shelling in the past 24 hours. The three dead were in the eastern Donetsk region, where fierce fighting is taking place for control of the city of Bakhmut, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Ukrainian TV. Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a Telegram update that a 51-year-old woman was “fighting for her life” after being hit by shrapnel when Russian troops fired on the border town of Dvorichna.

A senior Ukrainian presidential aide claimed on Sunday that Ukrainian troops were holding the line at Bakhmut, a key target of Russia’s months-long offensive. Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said in televised remarks that “the enemy’s plans to occupy (the city) are now falling apart.”

Taking Bakhmut would give the Kremlin a long-awaited victory on the battlefield after months of adversity, and could pave the way for Russia to threaten other Ukrainian strongholds in the region, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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