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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Ben Farmer in Odessa

Torture fears for Melitopol’s mayor after abduction by Russian troops

Protests in Melitopol demand the return of Mayor Ivan Fedorov after he was taken from the city's crisis centre by Russian troops

The CCTV pictures are grainy and distant, but they show the armed men’s purposeful and menacing conduct with their prisoner is alarming enough to make bystanders stop and stare.

Arms pinned to his side and a bag placed on his head, the captive is quickly marched out of an office and across a square. The figure being taken away is Ivan Fedorov, the young mayor of the occupied city of Melitopol, Ukrainian officials said.

His arrest came amid growing indications yesterday that Ukraine’s Russian occupiers were trying to strengthen their grip on territory seized since their invasion.

Members of the former administration were being arrested and detained, while potential collaborators were being sounded out to help rubber stamp the occupation by holding referenda.

Earlier this year Mr Federov’s mundane duties were the same as any small city chief. His busy Facebook feed showed a diary filled with humdrum engagements such as opening new city kindergartens, or posts reassuring residents that the municipal fleet of snowploughs could keep wintry roads open.

Yet like many of Ukraine’s local government officials, the Russian invasion had thrown the 33-year-old into a new front-line role, as figurehead for the city’s defiance.

Melitopol is within easy striking distance of Russian-annexed Crimea and was quickly reached by Russian forces in the early days of their invasion.

After tanks rolled into the city of around 150,000 on February 25, the authorities surrendered. Faced with this new reality, Mr Federov continued to preach defiance and encouragement to residents. “Melitopol was, is and will be a Ukrainian city,” he declared after a week of occupation. Hours before his arrest, he posted an update on activity in the city and declared: “Together we will overcome everything!”

Mr Federov’s spirit was noticed by Kyiv, and last week he was one of several city administrators given national honours by the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for having “distinguished themselves in the defence of their communities”.

CCTV purportedly showing the moment Mr Fedorov was bundled from the building.

But such defiance had, by Friday, appeared to have angered the Russians, who arrested Mr Federov with around 10 armed men while he was working in the city’s crisis control centre. Local media reported he had been accused of terrorism by prosecutors in the Russian-backed separatist regions of Donbas for supporting nationalist groups.

Ukraine’s parliament confirmed the abduction, saying the mayor had been seized because he “refused to cooperate with the enemy”.

Mr Zelensky hailed Mr Fedorov as “a mayor who bravely defends Ukraine and the members of his community”.

“This is obviously a sign of weakness of the invaders,” the president said in a video address. “They have moved to a new stage of terror in which they are trying to physically eliminate representatives of legitimate local Ukrainian authorities,” he said.

“The capture of the mayor of Melitopol is therefore a crime, not only against a particular person, against a particular community, and not only against Ukraine. It is a crime against democracy itself... The acts of the Russian invaders will be regarded like those of Islamic State terrorists,” he said.

Russia has not commented on the fate of Mr Fedorov. But his constituents appeared determined not to take his disappearance lightly. Hundreds gathered in the city yesterday morning to demand his release.

Mr Zelensky also attempted to increase pressure on Moscow, by calling on his European allies to try to get the mayor’s freedom. The mayor was alive, but being tortured, he claimed.

He said: “During the night and today we are talking to our partners about the situation with our mayor. Our demand is clear: he must be released immediately... I have already phoned [German] chancellor Olaf Scholz. I have spoken to [French] president Emmanuel Macron... I will speak to all the necessary people to get our people released,” he said. “We expect world leaders to show us how they can influence the situation.”

In nearby Kherson, another occupied city, there were also reports that Russian police had begun making arrests of those who had worked for the police or territorial defence units.

Prior to the Russian invasion, the US warned the United Nations that it had intelligence that Russian forces were “creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps” in the event of an occupation.

The lists contained anybody considered likely to challenge Russia in the aftermath of an invasion.

In another apparent move to solidify their control of territory they have captured in the past two weeks, Russian authorities were reported to be planning a referendum to create a separatist people’s republic around Kherson. Similar votes were used in 2014 to legitimise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the establishment of the Russian-backed separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Sergey Khlan, a council member in Kherson, said the Russian authorities had called local representatives to see if they were willing to collaborate. The southern port city of Kherson was captured by Russia last week, and was the first major city to be taken in the invasion. Mr Khlan called on his colleagues not to side with the invading forces.

He said: “Dear colleagues, I am sure that you understand the consequences of your decision. The creation of the Kherson people’s republic will turn our region into a hopeless hole without life and a future. Don’t give them a single vote! Don’t give them any opportunity to legitimise the Kherson People’s republic! Enter the history of Ukraine not as traitors whom nobody wants, but truly as citizens whose names will be remembered by the next generations.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba on Saturday tweeted: “Following the 2014 playbook, Russians now desperately try to organise a sham ‘referendum’ for a fake ‘people’s republic’ in Kherson. Given zero popular support, it will be fully staged.” He added: “Severe sanctions against Russia must follow if they proceed. Kherson is & will always be Ukraine.”

As Melitopol’s residents marched to secure the release of their mayor, those in other cities yesterday continued to face relentless bombardment. Russian forces stepped up their attacks on Mykolaiv, east of Odessa in an attempt to encircle the city and open a road to the Black Sea port.

Bus loads of civilians have been evacuated from the city in recent days.

“There’s no water, there’s no electricity and we have been in shelters for days,” said one woman who had fled with her daughter and granddaughter. “We couldn’t stay, they were shelling all the time,” she said.

A hospital in Mykolaiv’s northern district of Ingulski came under fire.

“They shot at the civilian areas, without any military objective,” Dmytro Lagochev, the hospital’s head, told AFP.

“There’s a hospital here, an orphanage and an ophthalmological clinic.”

Air raid sirens were also heard over most of Ukraine’s cities. Viacheslav Chaus, the governor of Chernihiv, around 100 miles north east of Kyiv, recorded a message from the of the ruins of the city’s Ukraine hotel. “There is no such hotel any more,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “But Ukraine itself still exists, and it will prevail.”

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