Turkey offers to evacuate Mariupol fighters despite disagreements

KHARKIV, Ukraine – Turkey is working to negotiate an exit for wounded Ukrainian soldiers taking refuge in the bunkers of a steel mill in the port city of Mariupol, but its efforts have been complicated by the fluidity of the fighting on the ground and because neither Neither Russia nor Ukraine authorized the plan, Turkey’s presidential spokesman said Saturday.

In an unusually frank interview via teleconference from Istanbul, spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey had talked to Ukraine and Russia, trying to find a deal even as both sides kept changing positions.

“It really depends on how the Russians see the war situation on the ground and the negotiations,” he said. “The battle on the ground shapes the negotiations,” she added. “The positions also change overnight. It’s very fluid. “

As a last stand in Mariupol, the southern city that was left in ruins by weeks of bombing, the Azovstal plant has become a powerful symbol for the Ukrainians and the fate of the remaining fighters: many wounded and all surviving forever more meager rations. – is kept under close observation.

Turkey has a ship waiting five to six weeks in Istanbul to evacuate Ukrainians by sea from the Berdyansk port, treat the injured and rehabilitate them in Turkey, Kalin said. Russia and Ukraine have not yet approved the plan, he said, but the offer remains.

Mr. Kalin, who served as national security adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been closely involved in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine since the war began in late February. Turkey hosted two rounds of peace talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, and Kalin said Erdogan has spoken to Putin five times since the invasion. Last month, the Turkish defense minister, Hulusi Akar, also spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu.

Turkey has recently received more and more calls to intercede in the evacuation of soldiers and civilians from Mariupol, including UN officials, the same soldiers and the wives of some soldiers, who held a press conference in Kiev on Saturday to urge the President Xi Jinping of China to persuade Putin to accept Turkey’s evacuation offer.

Mr. Kalin welcomed the calls. “We take these appeals very seriously,” he said. “It is a war zone and if you save one person it is truly a blessing. It is not a solution to the war, but it is a good thing to do under the circumstances. “

He said Ukrainians told Turkey that around 1,500 soldiers were to be evacuated, with around 450 wounded. Evacuating so many people is logistically difficult, Kalin said.

“To do that, the conditions on the ground have to be there,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s safe, because once they start moving throughout the whole operation, whether it takes six hours or 10 hours to reach their destination, a port or somewhere, there has to be absolute calm, safety and security. safety.”

Turkey has experience in negotiating war zone evacuations, which it has done several times successfully during the Syrian civil war from cities defeated by Russian and Syrian troops.

Turkey also supports an alternative plan to evacuate the injured by land to another Ukrainian city, Kalin said. The United Nations and the Red Cross have successfully evacuated hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in recent weeks by land.

Ukraine also offered to exchange soldiers for Russian POWs, which Mr. Kalin said Russia had noticed but not commented on.

The evacuation of the soldiers was complicated in particular by the inclusion of members of the Azov battalion, a former far-right militia now formally integrated into the Ukrainian army. Russia branded them as Nazis and Putin said the war was meant to bring about the “denazification” of Ukraine.

“I understand the Ukrainian position that everyone belongs to the Ukrainian army, with other groups, and they want everyone to get out,” Kalin said. “But if you put them all in one basket, the Russians say ‘No.’ So you know, it’s a mutual lack of trust, sometimes a mutual lack of coordination. “