By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who had held out inside Mariupol’s pulverized steel plant have surrendered, Russian said Wednesday, as the battle that turned the city into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war-crimes charges pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. And Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.
The Ukrainian fighters trooping out of the ruined Azovstal steelworks that became the last stronghold of resistance in the city face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, but Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.
It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. The leader of a Russia-backed separatist government that claims Mariupol as part of its territory said no top commanders had emerged from the plant.
The steel plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken the Russians, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
Military analysts, though, said the city’s capture would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and many of the Russian forces that were tied down by the fighting have already been moved out.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.
Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign
In the war crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war. Russia’s top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crime cases are being readied.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO within months if the reservations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be overcome. Erdogan has accused the two countries of supporting Kurdish militants. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.
Mariupol’s defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.
Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would allow Russia to fully focus on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial east.
For Ukraine, the plant’s surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government open to claims that troops he described as heroes were abandoned.
“Zelenskyy may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”
A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.
The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn’t take up the issue Wednesday.
Mariupol was targeted by Russia from the outset. The city — its prewar population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters was largely flattened in steady bombardments, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there.
During the siege, Russian forces also launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theater.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence report Wednesday that Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol “inflicted costly personnel losses” among Russian forces.
McQuillan and Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa, Lorne Cook in Brussels and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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