VATICAN CITY: The wives of two of the last remaining Ukrainian fighters holed up in Mariupol's steelworks asked Pope Francis on Wednesday to help get soldiers to a third country because "Russian captivity is not an option".
Kateryna Prokopenko, 27, and Yuliya Fedosiuk, 29, spoke to the pope for about five minutes at the end of his general audience in St. Peter's Square, also asking him to intervene directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin to "let them go".
Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov, has endured the most destructive fighting of the war in Ukraine. Kyiv says it is likely that tens of thousands of people have been killed there since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, and the Azovstal steel plant is the last part of the city still held by Ukrainian fighters.
"We hope that this meeting will just give us the chance to save their lives," Fedosiuk told reporters afterwards.
"Our soldiers are waiting to be evacuated to a third country, to lay down their arms in case of evacuation," she said.
"Russian captivity is not an option for them," Prokopenko said.
The women said they last spoke to their husbands, members of the Azov Regiment, on Tuesday. They said they told the pope about injured soldiers, rotting flesh, unburied bodies and lack of food, water and medicine at the steelworks.
The pope said he would do everything possible and would pray for them.
We asked him to come to Ukraine and to talk to Putin and tell him to 'let them go,', Fedosiuk said. The women mentioned Switzerland and Turkey as possibilities but gave no details.
Scores of civilians have been evacuated from the steelworks in recent days, but an aide to Mariupol's mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, said at least 100 still remained inside.
Francis said in an interview published on May 3 that he asked for a meeting in Moscow with Putin to try to stop the war in Ukraine but had not received a reply.
Fedosiuk called for countries to form a "a strong diplomatic coalition to push Putin to let them go safely to a third country".
Fedosiuk added that the last time she spoke to her husband, he asked her to find a article on the internet about how to live without water for the longest possible time.
The Azov Regiment said in a social media post on Tuesday that in the past 24 hours, 34 Russian aircraft had flown over the plant including eight sorties by strategic bombers.
It said the plant had come under fire from the Russian navy and from tanks, artillery and rockets. Reuters was unable to verify the situation.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella Editing by Alexandra Hudson)