Kiev Claims Russia Has Sights Set On New Eastern Ukrainian City
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Russian and Ukrainian presidents had a rare face-to-face meeting today. The talks were described as tough and cordial. They did not offer an immediate end to the war in eastern Ukraine. While that meeting was happening in Belarus, back in Ukraine the government accused Russia of trying to open a new front by sending an armored column towards the port of Mariupol. It also said Russian soldiers had been captured in the area. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent part of the day there, and she sent us this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Many families joined a steady exodus of residents leaving Mariupol after word spread of heavy fighting less than 40 miles away. They drove north on the highway leading out of town. Many cars had the word children scribbled in Russian on signs taped onto windows in hopes of avoiding any crossfire. Valera Martynov is a Red Cross volunteer and resident here.
VALERA MARTYNOV: It's continuing right now - the situation of the panic - the very, very big panic because people have gotten information that there is a battle nearby in Mariupol.
NELSON: Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko earlier today spoke about that battle as well as the 10 Russian soldiers Ukraine says it captured.
ANDRIY LYSENKO: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: He told reporters in Kiev that the captured troops were part of a Russian airborne division and that their documents and weapons had been confiscated. Two Russian tanks were also said to have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian officials claim the Russians and their rebel allies want to capture Mariupol to open up a supply line to the regional capital, Donetsk, which the rebels control and Ukrainian forces have cordoned off.
The Russian government denies those assertions and says the soldiers crossed the border by mistake. That's something the soldiers who were captured say as well in a controversial video Ukrainian security services shot of them. The film is being criticized as a possible violation of the Geneva Convention.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: In one clip, a Russian captive says, we were driving in convoys, not on the road but through fields. I did not see where we crossed the border. Mariupol residents interviewed say they don't care who the fighters are, and simply want the war to stay away. They're still traumatized by deadly street battles earlier this summer between separatists who had taken over the main administration building and Ukrainian soldiers who ultimately drove them out. Some Mariupol residents who can't afford to leave say they feel helpless and scared, like this 83-year-old who would only give her first and middle names, Tamara Michaelovna.
TAMARA MICHAELOVNA: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: The elderly woman says I hope God is going to save us and bring us calm. City officials provided more earthly help and designated nearly 800 bomb shelters for residents of Mariupol. Street vendor Natasha Sergeiyva believes residents don't want to admit the war is coming. She's experienced the devastation this war can bring, having fled to Mariupol last month with her family from the embattled town of Horlivka to the north.
NATASHA SERGEIYVA: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: Sergeiyva says she refuses to leave the city now because she is tired of running. Tears well up in her eyes as she recalls abandoning their dog, an eight-year-old Alsatian named Crazy, because there wasn't any room in the car when they fled. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.