Russian President Putin visited the occupied city of Mariupol

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, Russian state news agencies said Sunday morning, on his first trip to Ukrainian territory illegally annexed by Moscow in September.

Mariupol became a global symbol of defiance after outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops held out at a steel plant there for almost three months before Moscow finally took control in May.

Earlier on Saturday, Putin traveled to Crimea, just southwest of Mariupol, to mark the ninth anniversary of Ukraine’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.

The visits come just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader, accusing him of war crimes.

Putin arrived in Mariupol by helicopter and then toured the city’s “memorial sites”, a concert hall and the coastline, Russian reports say, without specifying when exactly the visit took place. According to them, Putin also met with local residents of the Nevsky district of the city.

Speaking to the state news agency RIA on Sunday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnulin signaled that Russia would remain in Mariupol. He said the government hoped to complete the reconstruction of the devastated city by the end of the year.

“People started coming back. When they saw that reconstruction was underway, people began to actively return, ”Khusnulin told RIA.

When Moscow completely occupied the city in May, out of a pre-war population of 450,000, approximately 100,000 remained. Many are trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. The relentless bombardment left row after row of destroyed or hollowed-out buildings.

The plight of Mariupol first came to attention after a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9 last year, less than two weeks after Russian troops entered Ukraine. A week later, it was reported that about 300 people were killed in a bomb attack on a theater that served as the largest bomb shelter in the city. Evidence obtained by the AP last spring suggests the real death toll could be closer to 600.

A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in eastern Mariupol before surrendering. Their stubborn defense tied up Russian troops and became a symbol of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Moscow’s aggression.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world condemned as illegal, and last September officially declared four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine Russian territory after referenda that Kiev and the West called a sham.

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