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AP Exclusive: Bodies of Mariupol steel-plant defenders returned

A journalist holds a photograph of a Ukrainian serviceman found in the ruins of the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal in Mariupol, Ukraine, in the territory now controlled by the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, June 13, 2022. The plant was almost completely destroyed during the siege of Mariupol. This photo was taken during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. (AP Photo)

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AP journalist Hanna Arhirova and multimedia reporter John Leicester teamed up to scoop Ukrainian media and the international press corps by revealing the return of Ukrainian fighters’ remains following the weekslong last stand at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Ukraine’s government had announced that a swap of Ukrainian and Russian bodies had taken place — but given no details. So Leicester was immediately interested when a rapper/soldier he was interviewing for another story told him of spending a day at a military hospital trying to help identify the first remains recovered from the steel plant, turned over by Russian forces in a swap of 320 bodies. That was the first indication that the bodies were from one of the most significant battles of the war so far.

Azovstal combo
At left, Russian soldiers walk through debris of the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal in Mariupol, Ukraine, June 13, 2022. The plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, was almost completely destroyed during the siege of Mariupol. At right, a Russian soldier inspects a labyrinth of the sprawling complex on June 13. These photos taken during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. – AP Photos

Leicester and Arhirova then worked furiously to confirm the information from other sources — all this on a day that started with the first missile strike on Kyiv in five weeks. Leicester reported on that too. The pair pursued multiple sources in a difficult environment, including family members, unit commanders and spokespersons, confirming on the record, ahead of the competition, that several hundred bodies had been swapped with the Russians, including dozens from a regiment that took a lead in defending the complex during the Russian siege of the port city.

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