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The US lifts a ban on sending weapons to a controversial Ukrainian military unit

KYIV, Ukraine — (AP) — The U.S. has lifted a ban on providing American weapons and training to a controversial Ukrainian military unit that was key to the defense of the major port city of Mariupol, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The Azov Brigade is among Ukraine’s most effective and popular fighting units but it has been dogged by its origins as a volunteer battalion that drew fighters from far-right circles and criticism for some of its tactics. The U.S. had banned the regiment from using American weapons, citing the neo-Nazi ideology of some of its founders.

The current members of the Azov Brigade, which has been absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard as the 12th Special Forces Brigade, reject accusations of extremism and any ties with far-right movements. But the Kremlin has seized on the regiment’s origins in its efforts to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took an “extremely negative” view of Washington’s decision. He described Azov as an “ultranationalist armed formation” and accused U.S. authorities of being “ready to flirt with neo-Nazis.”

U.S. law prohibits providing equipment and training to foreign military units or individuals suspected of committing gross human rights violations. The State Department said in a statement that it found “no evidence" of such violations.

“This is a new page in our unit's history,” the Azov Brigade wrote in a statement on Instagram. “Azov is becoming even more powerful, even more professional and even more dangerous for occupiers.”

“Obtaining Western weapons and training from the United States will not only increase the combat ability of Azov, but most importantly, contribute to the preservation of the lives and the health of personnel,” the statement said.

Up until the State Department's decision, Azov was prohibited from sending fighters to Western military exercises or accessing weapons bought with American funds. Lifting the ban will likely bolster the brigade's fighting capacity at a difficult time during the war against Russia's invasion. Ukraine suffers from persistent ammunition and personnel shortages.

Years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Human Rights Watch raised concerns about Azov, writing that credible allegations of egregious abuses had been made against its fighters.

Moscow has repeatedly portrayed the Azov as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, but has publicly given little evidence of the allegations. In 2022, Russia's top court officially designated Azov a terrorist group.

The brigade grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer regiments created to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. It quickly became a separate official unit under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and later a unit of the National Guard.

Since its first commander left in October 2014, the brigade says on its website, it has been “cleansing itself” of undesirable elements. It wasn't possible to ascertain whether the brigade has accomplished that. It has, however, tried to recast its public image away from the controversy surrounding its ultranationalist origins to that of an effective and skillful fighting force, and has shunned connections with controversial figures.

Azov soldiers played a key part in the defense of Mariupol, holding out in a siege and low on ammunition for weeks at the southern port city's steel mill, despite devastating attacks from Russian forces in 2022.

They are hailed as heroes in Ukraine, remembered for defense of the sprawling plant that became a symbol of Ukrainian tenacity in the war against Russia, and people take to the streets for weekly rallies calling for the release of hundreds of Azov POWs who remain in Russian captivity.

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Find more of AP's coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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