Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Mariupol steel plant face uncertain fate More than a thousand soldiers were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant, and Russia is consolidating control of Mariupol. It is making plans to annex the southwestern parts of the country.

Russia aims to capitalize on controlling the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Congress has approved an additional nearly $40 billion to Ukraine for weapons and humanitarian aid. That's nearly triple the amount of the last aid package. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, more than a thousand soldiers have been evacuated from that steel plant in Mariupol as Russia consolidates its control of the city, which is strategically important because of its position on the coast. Ukrainian officials are also out with new numbers. They say tens of thousands of people were killed during months of bombardment and some of the fiercest fighting of this war. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv, Ukraine. And she says the standoff in the steel plant might not be fully over.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In addition to those who have surrendered, there could be even more soldiers still barricaded under the Azovstal plant. You know, officially, we don't know much because the Ukrainians have put a lid on all information about the plant since the soldiers started leaving it earlier this week. But on Thursday night, there was this cryptic video posted by a soldier that has been defending the plant. His name is Sviatoslav Palamar. And he's a commander of Ukraine's Azov regiment.

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SVIATOSLAV PALAMAR: (Through interpreter) Glory to Ukraine. Today is the 85th day of war. Me and my military command are in the territory of Azovstal now. There is some operation underway. I won't go into details of that. Thanks to the whole world, and thanks to Ukraine for support.

KAKISSIS: So he appears to be claiming that he and other Ukrainian soldiers remain inside the plant.

FADEL: Oh.

KAKISSIS: We do not know if that's true, but it does suggest that this story has not ended.

FADEL: And what do we know about the soldiers who have surrendered? What's happening with them? Where are they?

KAKISSIS: Well, we know that they've been taken to Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine's east. On private Telegram channels, supporters of Russia's war are celebrating the capture of these soldiers, calling them Nazis and pigs. The International Committee for the Red Cross says that they're registering Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners of war. Earlier this week, Ukrainian officials were talking about bringing the soldiers back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange. But since then, the Ukrainian authorities have gone silent. And some Russian politicians are saying that the Ukrainian soldiers should be put on trial and even face execution. But the Geneva Conventions state that combatants cannot be put on trial just for participating in battles.

FADEL: So this Ukrainian city, Mariupol, is destroyed after weeks of bombing and shelling by Russian troops. And Russia now controls it. Tell us why Russia wanted it and how Russia will capitalize on taking control.

KAKISSIS: Sure. Controlling Mariupol means Russia secures a link between the Russian border and Crimea. Russian media reports suggest that Russia is taking steps to secure its hold over southeastern Ukraine. It's not clear yet what this will look like. Russia's deputy prime minister for infrastructure, Marat Khusnullin, he was quoted by Russian news media saying that, you know, these areas have worthy place in our Russia family. Russia has also installed proxies to serve as local politicians. So the Russians are clearly planning on staying here for the long haul, even though Ukrainians have pushed them back in other parts of the country.

FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Leila.

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