By JOHN LEICESTER and HANNA ARHIROVA
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia has begun turning over the bodies of Ukrainian fighters killed at the Azovstal steelworks, the fortress-like plant in the destroyed city of Mariupol where their last-ditch stand became a symbol of resistance against Moscow’s invasion.
Dozens of fighters’ bodies recovered from the bombed-out mill’s now Russian-occupied ruins have been transferred to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where DNA testing is underway to identify the remains, said Maksym Zhorin, a military commander and former leader of the Azov Regiment.
The Azov Regiment was among the Ukrainian units that defended the factory for nearly three months before surrendering.
It isn’t clear how many bodies might still remain at the plant, which was relentlessly pounded by surrounding Russian forces from the air and sea.
The fighters’ dogged defense of the steel mill frustrated the Kremlin’s objective of quickly capturing Mariupol and tied down Russian forces in the strategic port city. The defenders were hailed as heroes by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The last Azovstal holdouts, more than 2,400 fighters in all, finally relinquished the plant in May, marching out without weapons and carrying their wounded. The survivors’ fate in Russian hands is shrouded in uncertainty.
The recovery of the fighters’ remains from the Azovstal ruins has not been announced by the Ukrainian government. But relatives of soldiers killed at the plant discussed the process with The Associated Press.
The Ukrainian government’s Ministry for Reintegration of Occupied Territories on Saturday announced the first officially confirmed swap of troops’ bodies since the war began. It said the two sides exchanged 320 bodies in total, each getting back 160 sets of remains.
The exchange took place Thursday on the front line in the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine. Parts of that region are under Russian control, as is Mariupol, farther to the east on the Sea of Azov.
But ministry’s the three-paragraph statement gave no details about where the bodies were recovered from and didn’t mention Azovstal. Contacted Monday for further comment, the Ukrainian ministry provided no other immediate details. Russian officials haven’t commented on the swap.
The Avoz Regiment is a National Guard unit that grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades that arose to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Azov Battalion drew initial fighters from far-right circles.
Zhorin, the former Azov Regiment leader now co-commanding a Kyiv-based military unit, confirmed that remains recovered from Azovstal were among those exchanged in the swap.
The brother of an Azov fighter missing and feared dead in the steelworks told the AP that at least two trucks of bodies from Azovstal have been transferred to a military hospital in Kyiv for identification. Viacheslav Drofa said the remains of his elder brother, Dmitry Lisen, did not appear to be among those recovered so far.
Bodies were recovered last week from the mill and some were severely burned, he said.
The mother of a soldier killed in a Russian airstrike on the plant said the Azov Regiment telephoned her and said that her son’s body might be among those that have been transferred to Kyiv. The mother did not want her or her son to be identified by name, saying she feared that discussing the recovery process might disrupt it.
She tearfully referred to her son as a hero and said she wants to be able to lay his remains to rest.
“I’m just waiting for the body of my son,” she said. “It’s important for me to bury him in our Ukrainian land.”
In other developments Monday, Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russia’s invasion loomed large over D-Day commemorations in France, where the 78th anniversary of the Normandy invasion was marked.
“The fight in Ukraine is about honoring these veterans of World War II,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
He added: “It’s about maintaining the so-called global rules-based international order that was established by the dead who are buried here at this cemetery.”
American D-Day veteran Charles Shay, 97, was at Omaha Beach to mark the the anniversary of the June 6, 1944, landings and pay tribute to those who fell that day. Asked about the war raging on the European continent, Shay said, “It is a very sad situation.”
“In 1944 I landed on these beaches, and we thought we’d bring peace to the world. But it’s not possible,” he added.
Russia, meanwhile, continued to pummel targets in Ukraine.
Russian warplanes fired long-range missiles to destroy a plant on the edge of the town of Lozova in the northeastern Kharkiv region that was repairing armored vehicles, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said.
Russian aircraft hit 73 areas of concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment, while the Russian artillery struck 431 military targets, Konashenkov said. His claims couldn’t be independently verified.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said fierce fighting continued in the city of Sievierodonetsk, which is at the epicenter of the Russian offensive in the east.
He described the combat situation as “quite dynamic,” adding that the Ukrainian forces had lost some of the gains they made over the weekend but were holding their positions in the city’s industrial zone.
“Our defenders managed to conduct a counteroffensive and free nearly half of the city, but the situation has worsened again now,” Haidai said.
“The shelling of Sievierodonetsk has intensified, (the Russians) are destroying everything in line with their scorched-earth tactics,” he said.
David Keyton contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine