Russian abduction of Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov sparks Zelensky backlash, thousands of protesters

Russian abduction of Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov sparks Zelensky backlash, thousands of protesters

“During the abduction, they put a plastic bag over his head,” Gerashchenko told Interfax Ukraine. “The enemy detained him in the city crisis center, where he dealt with the life support of the Ukrainian city.”

Russia has accused Fedorov of “terrorist activities,” according to the Associated Press. The prosecutor’s office of the Luhansk People’s Republic, a Moscow-backed rebel region in eastern Ukraine, has claimed without presenting evidence that Fedorov was financing the nationalist militia Right Sector to “commit terrorist crimes against Donbas civilians.”

Zelensky confirmed that Russian forces had captured Fedorov and demanded that Russia “release him from captivity immediately.”

“The detention of the mayor of Melitopol is a crime against democracy,” he said at a news conference Saturday in Kyiv, adding that Russia should be ashamed of its actions.

The Ukrainian president said the alleged abduction of Fedorov, which he called “simple terrorism,” is the latest of a number of actions against mayors across the country who do not cooperate with the Russian forces occupying their cities and towns. Melitopol, with a population of about 150,000, has been under Russian control for two weeks. Despite the Russian occupation of the city, Fedorov, who is ethnic Russian, had encouraged recent demonstrations in Melitopol against Russia.

“They are not ashamed of that video,” Zelensky said of the Russians allegedly abducting Fedorov, asserting that the invading forces were “moving to a new stage of terror.”

Zelensky said he raised the fate of Fedorov in calls to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, urging the leaders to “get in touch” with Russian President Vladimir Putin “to free the mayor.”

The mayor’s alleged abduction prompted roughly 2,000 people on Saturday to protest outside the city hall building occupied by Russian forces, Zelensky said. Bundled-up against the cold, protesters in Melitopol sang for Fedorov’s release.

“Bring back the mayor! Bring back the mayor!” they sang. “Freedom to the mayor! Freedom to the mayor!”

The demonstration took place against a backdrop of an intensifying Russian assault on Ukraine. Russian troops advanced Saturday into the eastern outskirts of Mariupol, a strategic port on Ukraine’s southern coast, and several cities across the country, from Kyiv, the capital, to Mykolaiv, another key city on the Black Sea, continued to face withering bombardments. Ukrainian officials are accusing Russia of striking a hospital in Mykolaiv and a mosque in Mariupol.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster is mounting, with nearly 2.6 million Ukrainians fleeing the country since the start of the invasion, according to the United Nations. After local officials in Poland, to which 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine fled, warned that they were struggling to cope with the arrivals, Germany said Saturday that other countries must “step up” to help with the massive influx of Ukrainian refugees.

Zelensky said Saturday that any peace negotiations with Russia and Putin can begin only with a cease-fire agreement. Speaking to reporters in Kyiv, Zelensky said that he is open to negotiations with Putin and that he has discussed the possibility of negotiations being held in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as facilitator. But Zelensky emphasized that real negotiations for peace could not begin until the two sides agree to a cease-fire.

“Our diplomats are working, and they have talked over some items of a possible agenda between us and the Russian Federation,” Zelensky told reporters. “I want this to materialize and the process of ending the war, the process of peace, 100 percent should begin with cease-fire.”

About 1,300 Ukrainian troops have been killed by Russian forces since the start of the invasion last month, Zelensky said. The Ukrainian president added that between 500 and 600 Russian troops surrendered Friday. The Washington Post has not verified either of these figures.

Melitopol, a city where Russian is commonly spoken, is about 145 miles northeast of the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. While the city came under assault at the start of the invasion and was quickly taken over, Fedorov had remained defiant , saying, “We are not cooperating with the Russians in any way.”

As residents took to the streets of Melitopol last weekend to wave the blue and gold colors of Ukraine, Fedorov encouraged the demonstrations, even amid the Russian occupation.

“Together we will overcome anything!” he wrote in a Facebook post that has since been made private.

Now, Ukrainian officials are trying to find where he is being held. Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba wrote Saturday on Twitter that Fedorov was still alive.

“They torture him to force [him] to collaborate,” Scherba said of the Russians.

Even as Russian forces aimed to shut down Saturday’s protest, Zelensky reiterated to reporters that he was “grateful to every Melitopol resident for this resistance” by demonstrating in response to the alleged abduction of Fedorov. He also suggested to Putin that the war is unpopular among Russians.

“Do you hear it, Moscow?” he asked. “If 2,000 people are protesting against the occupation in Melitopol, how many people should be in Moscow against the war?”

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