Last Updated: March 19, 2023, 15:11 IST
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Moscow-occupied Mariupol, state media reported Sunday. Mariupol was Putin’s first visit since it was captured after a lengthy siege at the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.
The trip comes days after an arrest warrant was issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court, over Russia’s alleged deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children during the conflict.
Russia besieged Mariupol at the start of its offensive last year, destroying the Azovstal steel works, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city.
According to Russian news agency TASS, Putin flew to Mariupol by helicopter on Saturday and took a tour of the city, at times driving a car.
He visited several sites and spoke with residents, and was presented with a report on the reconstruction work of the city.
Putin’s stop in Mariupol comes after his surprise visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.
Russian state TV showed him visiting the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, accompanied by the local Moscow-appointed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev.
The visit is seen as particularly provocative to Ukrainians as Mariupol was long a symbol of resistance that witnessed some of the most intense fighting since Russia began aggression last year. More than a third of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war have already left.
Razvozhayev said on the messaging app Telegram that Putin had been expected to take part in the opening of a children’s art school by video link.
“But Vladimir Vladimirovich came in person. Himself. Behind the wheel. Because on such a historic day, the president is always with Sevastopol and the people of Sevastopol,” he said.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following a referendum that was not recognised by Kyiv and the international community.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he aimed to take back Crimea, though Moscow has refused to include it in possible peace talks.
Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022, many of them placed in institutions and foster homes.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan told AFP that Putin was now liable for arrest if he set foot in any of the court’s more than 120 member states.
The 70-year-old Russian leader has not commented publicly on the warrant, but the Kremlin dismissed its validity as “void” since Russia did not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction.
The Hague-based court’s decision came ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on Monday to sign accords touted as ushering in a new era of ties.
China, a major Russian ally, has sought to position itself as a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict, urging Moscow and Kyiv to open negotiations.
But Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Beijing for failing to condemn Russia’s offensive, accusing it of providing Moscow with diplomatic cover for its campaign.
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