Russian President Vladimir Putin has paid a surprise visit to Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city captured by Russian forces 10 months ago.
Mariupol was devastated in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the conflict. Ukrainian official press states that over 20,000 people were killed there.
An official video shows Putin driving a car through streets with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin at night and speaking to people, late on Saturday night, March 18 (exiled Ukrainian city officials state that Putin visited at night in order to avoid seeing the destroyed city in daylight). This is reportedly Putin’s first trip to Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Mariupol’s exiled mayor told BBC News that Mr Putin was a „criminal” who had „returned to the scene of the crime”. „He has come in person to see what he has done […] He’s come to see what he will be punished for.”
The Kremlin has said the decision to drive round the city was made spontaneously by the Russian leader, and in the video, the Russian PM explains how the city is being rebuilt. A group of locals have told the BBC that Russia is conducting an expensive campaign to rebuild the city to appease the local population, as well as to assimilate it into Russian territory.
In the video, Putin also appears to visit the Philharmonic Hall, which was used to stage trials of defenders of the Azovstal iron and steel plant, a huge industrial complex where Ukrainian troops held out before eventually surrendering.
Saliently, the Russian leader is also reported to have met top military commanders in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city just east of Mariupol.
UN analysis estimates that 90% of Mariupol’s buildings were damaged and around 350,000 people were forced to leave, out of a pre-war population of circa 500,000. Specifically, The fighting saw Russia strike a Mariupol theatre where hundreds of civilians were sheltering. The building collapsed, and at least 300 are believed to have died there. Ukraine and human rights groups state the attack amounted to a war crime.
This visit to Mariupol follows a statement made by The International Criminal Court, one day earlier, in which it reports that it has officially issued a warrant for the arrest of Vladimir Putin involving the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Technically, Putin could now be arrested if he sets foot in any of the court’s 123 member states.
Also on Saturday Mr Putin made an unannounced visit to Crimea, to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the territory from Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have publicly vowed to liberate all Russian-occupied territories, including Crimea.
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