Written by Lydia Kelly and Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) – A day after the International Criminal Court was indicted for war crimes, President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the scene of some of the worst devastation from his invasion a year ago.
State television showed expanded footage of Putin shown around the city on Saturday night, where he met with rehoused residents and briefed Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khosnowlin on the reconstruction effort.
The port city of Mariupol became known around the world as a synonym for death and destruction as much of it was reduced to rubble in the early months of the war, eventually falling to Russian forces in May.
Hundreds were killed in the bombing of a theater where families with children were sheltering. The Organization for Security and Co-operation and Europe (OSCE) said Russia’s early bombing of a maternity hospital there was a war crime. Moscow denied this and has said since it invaded on Feb. 24 last year that it does not target civilians.
Putin’s visit was a gesture of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant on Friday, accusing him of a war crime of deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
He has not commented publicly on the move, but his spokesperson said it was legally “null and void” and that Russia found the questions raised by the ICC “outrageous and unacceptable”.
Mariupol’s visit was Putin’s first to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region since the war began, and those closest to the front lines.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a number of trips to the battlefield to boost the morale of his troops and talk about his strategy, Putin has largely remained inside the Kremlin as he runs what Russia calls its “own military operation” in Ukraine.
Kiev and its allies say the invasion is an imperial land grab that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Ukraine.
A piece of heaven
Putin’s trip to Mariupol took place in the dark. State television showed him in a car, driving through the city in the company of the deputy prime minister, Khosnulin, being briefed in detail on the rebuilding of housing, bridges, hospitals, transport routes and a concert hall.
State media said he visited a new residential neighborhood built by the Russian military as the first people moved in last September.
“Do you live here? Do you like it?” Putin was seen asking the residents.
“Very much. It’s a little piece of heaven that we have here now,” replied a woman, clasping her hands and thanking Putin for the “victory.”
Khosnulin told Putin that residents had returned “energetically”. Mariupol had a population of half a million before the war and was home to the Azovstal steel mill, one of the largest in Europe, where Ukrainian fighters held out for weeks in tunnels and underground bunkers before being forced to surrender.
“The city center has been hit hard,” Khosnulin said. “We want to finish (rebuilding) the center by the end of the year, at least the facade part. The center is very beautiful.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Ukrainian government to the visit.
Mariupol is in the Donetsk region, one of four largely Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine that Putin moved in September to annex in a measure that most countries in the United Nations General Assembly rejected as illegal.
Putin flew there by helicopter after visiting Crimea on the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine.
From Mariupol, he went to Rostov in southern Russia, where on Sunday state television showed him meeting Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the leader of Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
(Reporting by Lydia Kelly in Melbourne and Mark Trevelyan in London; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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