Vladimir Putin made surprise visit to occupied Mariupol: NPR
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies reported Sunday morning, on his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September .
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.
Earlier on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, a short distance southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine.
The visits came days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader accusing him of war crimes.
Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then toured the city’s “memorial sites”, the concert hall and the coastline, according to Russian reports, without specifying exactly when the visit took place. They said Putin also met with residents of the city’s Nevsky district.
Speaking to state news agency RIA on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin 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 coming back actively,” Khusnulin 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.
The fate of Mariupol first became apparent 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.