Ukraine vows not to use cluster bombs in Russia, brings ‘heroes of Mariupol’ home

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Kyiv: Ukraine has welcomed a controversial US decision to send cluster bombs to Kyiv but promised the munitions will only be used to help liberate Ukrainian territory, not to launch strikes on Russia.

It comes as President Volodymyr Zelensky marked 500 days of war by bringing home from Turkey five former commanders of Mariupol – a highly symbolic move that Russia says violates a prisoner exchange deal engineered last year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a flight home to Ukraine with the Azovstal garrison.Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Ukraine’s counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion is stalling. But America’s decision Friday to supply Ukraine with widely banned cluster munitions has sparked backlash from allies including Canada, Germany and Spain, because of the risk to civilians from the bombs.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the munitions would help save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers. Ukraine would keep a strict record of their use, exchange information with its partners, and not use them in urban areas. They would only be deployed “to break through the enemy defence lines”, and to liberate “our internationally recognised territories”, Reznikov said. “These munitions will not be used on the officially recognised territory of Russia.”

Cluster munitions are banned by more than 100 countries, including Australia, but have already been deployed by Russia against Ukraine in its invasion. They typically release large numbers of smaller bomblets that can kill indiscriminately over a wide area. Those that fail to explode pose a danger for decades.

Russia has already been using cluster munitions against Ukraine in its invasion.Credit: Reuters

The Pentagon has said it will provide munitions with a reduced “dud rate,” meaning there will be far fewer unexploded ones that may result in unintended civilian deaths.

US President Joe Biden has defended what he said was a much-debated and “difficult decision” to provide the bombs to Ukraine, but one his administration saw as key to the country’s fight.

“It took me a while to be convinced to do it,” said Biden in a CNN interview. But “the Ukrainians are running out of ammunition”, he said, and the cluster bombs will provide a temporary fix to help stop Russian tanks.

Russia, Ukraine, and the US have not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, stockpiling, use, and transfer of these weapons. Biden is likely to face further questions from allies on the move next week when he attends a key NATO summit in Lithuania.

US President Joe Biden will likely face questions from allies over the supply of cluster bombs at a key NATO summit.Credit: Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has thanked the US for the military aid. On Saturday, the Ukrainian leader was joined on his flight home from Turkey by the five commanders of the Azovstal steel plant – fighters lionised in Ukraine for leading a fierce three-month defence of Mariupol last year.

“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” said Zelensky, who had been meeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for talks in Istanbul.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Turkey had promised under the exchange agreement to keep the men in Turkey and complained Moscow had not been informed.

President Zelensky embraces Serhii Volynskyi, who defended the Azovstal steel plant in early 2022.Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Thousands of civilians were killed in Mariupol when Russian forces laid the city to waste in the first months of the war. The Ukrainian defenders held out in tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal plant until finally ordered by Kyiv to surrender in May last year.

Moscow freed some of them in September in a prisoner swap brokered by Turkey, under terms that required the commanders to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

In a video published Saturday, Zelensky also hailed Ukraine’s soldiers from Snake Island in the Black Sea, where soldiers led some of the earliest resistance to Russia’s invasion.

Speaking from the island, Zelensky honoured the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for it and all other defenders of the country, saying that reclaiming control of the island “is a great proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory”.

Reuters, AP

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