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By Lidia Kelly
March 19 (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to the war-ravaged port of Mariupol over the weekend, state media reported, the Kremlin leader’s first trip to the Russian-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbass region since the start of the war conflict.
The visit comes after Putin made an unannounced visit to Crimea on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine, and just two days after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Russian guide had issued.
Putin has yet to comment publicly on the ICC arrest warrant, but his trips to Russian-claimed Ukrainian territory have been viewed by some observers as an act of defiance.
Mariupol fell in May after one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, marking Russia’s first major victory after failing to capture Kiev and instead focusing on southeastern Ukraine
The Organization for Security and Co-operation and Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a local maternity hospital was a war crime.
Russian news agencies, citing the Kremlin, reported that Putin had flown to Mariupol in a helicopter for “a work trip”. He traveled through several districts of the city, making stops and speaking to local residents.
It is the closest to the front line that Putin has been since the start of the year-long war.
The ICC on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Putin, charging him with the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine, a symbolic move that further isolates the Russian leader.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a series of trips to the battlefield to boost his troops’ morale and discuss strategy, Putin has largely remained in the Kremlin while directing what Russia calls its “military special operation” in the calls Ukraine.
Kiev and its allies say the invasion, now in its 13th month, is an imperialist land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people in Ukraine.
In the Nevsky district of Mariupol, Putin visited a family at their home, Russian media reported. The new residential area was built by the Russian military and the first people moved in last September.
Russian authorities quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who was accompanying Putin, as saying that residents had returned “actively”.
Mariupol had a pre-war population of half a million people and was home to the Azovstal Steel Works, one of the largest in Europe.
“The city center was badly damaged,” said Khusnullin. “We want to finish (reconstruct) the center by the end of the year, at least the facade part. The center is very beautiful.”
Russian media broadcast videos showing the Russian leader driving a car through a built-up area at night and going to the Philharmonic Hall, which has been restored in just three months, the media said.
There was also no immediate reaction to the visit from Kiev.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of the four regions that Putin annexed in September. Kiev and its western allies condemned the move as illegal. Donetsk, along with the Luhansk region, comprises most of the industrialized Donbass part of Ukraine, which has seen the biggest battle in Europe for generations.
Russian media reported Sunday that Putin also met with the supreme commander of his military operation in Ukraine, including Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of Moscow’s war in Ukraine. (Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing of Lincoln Feast)
Source : news.yahoo.com