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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 trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin arrived in Mariupol on Saturday evening after visiting Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the annexation of the peninsula of the Black Sea to Ukraine. Mariupol became a global symbol of defiance after Ukrainian forces, outgunned and outmanned, held out at a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control in May.

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

Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which has deepened his international isolation despite the likelihood that he will face trial any time soon. The Kremlin dismissed the International Criminal Court’s decision as “legally null and void”.

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

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then wandered around the city’s “memorial sites”, the concert hall and the coastline, Russian media reported. On Sunday, state broadcaster Rossiya 24 showed Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like 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 about 180 kilometers further east, and met is interviewed by General Valery Gerasimov who is in charge of the Russian army. operations in Ukraine. said Peskov.

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

Speaking to state agency RIA on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made it clear that Russia is in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to complete the reconstruction of its devastated city center by the end of the year.

“People started coming back. When they saw that the reconstruction was going on, people started to actively come back,” Khusnullin told RIA.

When Moscow fully captured the city in May, about 100,000 people remained, out of a pre-war population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The relentless shelling left rows upon rows of broken or hollowed out buildings.

Mariupol’s plight first caught international attention 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, around 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 may be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the vast steelworks of Azovstal in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defense pinning down Russian forces and symbolizing Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow’s aggression .

Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine in 2014, a move that most countries around the world have denounced as illegal, and decided last September to formally claim four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine as Russian territory, following referendums that Kiev and the West have called a sham.

The ICC on Friday accused Putin of being personally responsible for child abductions in 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 territories controlled by Russia or Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.

Peskov reaffirmed on Sunday that Moscow considers “any decision of the International Criminal Court legally null and void”. While the ICC’s decision on Friday was welcomed by Kyiv, the chances that Putin will stand trial are slim as 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 had been killed and at least 19 others injured by Russian shelling in the past 24 hours. All three deaths occurred in the eastern region of Donetsk, where fierce battles are taking place for control of the city of Bakhmut, its governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukrainian television. Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a Telegram update that a 51-year-old woman was “fighting for her life” after she was hit by shrapnel as Russian troops fired on the town. border town of Dvorichna.

A senior Ukrainian presidential adviser claimed on Sunday that Ukrainian troops were holding the line near Bakhmut, a key target of Russia’s relentless offensive for months. Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said in televised remarks that “the enemy’s plans to occupy (the city) are sinking.”

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

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