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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday declared the Ukrainian Azov Regiment a terrorist organization, a designation that could lead to terrorism charges against some of the captured fighters who served their last combat inside the regiment. destroyed steelworks in Mariupol.

Dozens of Azov fighters have been held by Moscow since their surrender in mid-May. Russian authorities have opened criminal charges against them, accusing them of killing civilians. Adding terrorism charges could mean even longer prison sentences.

In a statement, the Azov Regiment rejected the High Court’s decision, accusing Russia of “seeking new excuses and explanations for its war crimes”. He urged the United States and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state.

Azov soldiers played a key role in the defense of Mariupol, withstanding the southern port city’s steel mill for weeks despite punitive attacks by Russian forces. Ukraine’s president hailed them and other plant defenders as heroes.

Moscow has repeatedly described the Azov regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, although no evidence to support these claims has been made public. In May, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office filed a petition to designate the regiment as a terrorist organization.

The regiment, a unit within the National Guard of Ukraine, has a checkered history. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of several volunteer brigades assembled to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Azov Battalion drew its earliest fighters from far-right circles and drew criticism for some of its tactics. Its current members have rejected accusations of extremism.

The regiment’s far-right origins were seized upon by the Kremlin as part of its effort to make the Russian invasion a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media repeatedly showed what they claimed were Nazi insignia, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.

Last week, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war, including defenders of the Mariupol factory, were killed in an explosion at a barracks in a penal colony in Olenivka, an eastern town controlled by pro-separatists. -Russians. Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other for the blast, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture against prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, the first cargo ship to leave Ukraine since the Russian invasion more than five months ago was off the coast of Bulgaria on Tuesday as it headed for Istanbul and its final destination, Lebanon, highlighting test an agreement signed last month by Moscow and Kyiv. to unlock Ukraine’s agricultural exports and alleviate the global food crisis.

It is estimated that 20 million tonnes of grain have been blocked in Ukraine since the start of the war. The UN-brokered deal to free the grain calls for the establishment of safe corridors through mined waters outside Ukrainian ports.

The Razoni, which left the port of Odessa on Monday with more than 26,000 tons of corn, was due to reach Istanbul early Wednesday for a joint inspection by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials. Other Ukrainian ships are expected to follow.

In Odessa alone, 16 other ships, all stranded since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, were awaiting their turn, with more to follow, Ukrainian authorities said.

Global food prices have soared in a crisis blamed on war, global supply chain problems and COVID-19. While Ukraine – and Russia – are the world’s main suppliers of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, the deal itself may not reduce world hunger much. .

Most grain blocked in Ukraine is used to feed livestock, according to David Laborde, an expert at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Only 6 million tonnes are wheat, and only half is for human consumption, Laborde said. He said Monday’s shipment is actually chicken feed.

“A few ships leaving Ukraine is not going to be a game changer,” he said.

The departure of the grain ship occurred against the backdrop of continued fighting, particularly in southern and eastern Ukraine.

In other developments on Tuesday:

— American basketball star Brittney Griner was back in court for her cannabis possession trial. Prosecutors called a narcotics expert who analyzed the cannabis found in Griner’s luggage. The defense called a specialist who challenged the analysis as flawed. If found guilty, she could face up to 10 years in prison, although the United States has offered a prisoner swap in hopes of securing her release.

— A train carrying evacuees from the Donetsk region arrived in Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine, triggering what Ukrainian authorities described as a forced evacuation in the east. Authorities plan to evacuate 200,000 to 220,000 people from the Donetsk region before the fall to put them out of harm’s way.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Aya Batrawy contributed from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.