VATICAN CITY (AP) — The wives of two Ukrainian soldiers defending the Mariupol steel plant met with Pope Francis on Wednesday and begged him to intervene to arrange for a third-party evacuation of troops before Russian soldiers capture or kill them .
“You are our last hope. We want you to save their lives. Please don’t let them die,” a sobbing Kateryna Prokopenko greeted Francis at the end of the weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square.
Yulia Fedushuk, who was standing beside her, told Francis that the mill was running out of food and water, some soldiers were wounded or killed, and those who were alive were ready to lay down their weapons if they could be evacuated to a third country.
“They will not be imprisoned by Russia because they will be tortured and killed,” Fedusic told Francis, according to a video of the encounter filmed by another of their entourage, Pyotr Verzilov, a prominent member of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot, who is producing a Documentary about Ukraine.
Prokopenko’s husband, Denys Prokopenko, is the Azov regiment commander at the Azovstal factory, while Fedusiuk’s husband, Arseniy Fedusiuk, is one of the Azov fighters who have been defending the factory from Russian forces for more than two months.
The young women have been in Italy for more than two weeks, seeking international support for a diplomatic solution to the factory standoff, the last of the Ukrainian resistance in the strategic port city.
Francis, who was hobbled by knee problems and painful to walk and stand, stood up to greet the women, a gesture he didn’t make to the rest of the crowd who lined up to watch him at the end of the audience on Wednesday. As they wept, he took their hands, blessed them, and said he had spoken to Cardinal Konrad Krajewski about the plight of the soldiers, whom he had sent to Ukraine.
Verzilov told Francis that time was running out for the troops at the Azovstal factory.
“We think that if there is not some urgent intervention in the next few days, it will end in a big tragedy,” Verzilov later told The Associated Press. He said Francis said he was aware of the confrontation. “He understands how tragic this is and will do what he can.”
The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross organized a series of operations to evacuate civilians from the factory, which sheltered hundreds of people in underground tunnels and bunkers. But the soldiers, and apparently some of their family members, stayed.
Vilzilov, a Russian activist and publisher of independent news site Mediazona, said Turkey had been trying to find a solution to the impasse but had not found any.
“Our soldiers are ready to evacuate to a third country. They are ready to lay down their arms when they evacuate to a third country,” Proppenko told reporters after a brief meeting. “I hope we are all ready to help them.”
Fedusiuk said her husband recently asked her to study how to survive without water.
“The water is running out. They have no food, no water, no medicine,” she said. “They are dying every day. One or two wounded soldiers die every day.”
She said she understands that some civilians, relatives of soldiers, remained at the factory because they feared they would be identified in Russian-run “filter camps” along the evacuation route and would not be allowed into Ukrainian territory.
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