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Zmiinyi Island

Aerial view of Ukraine's Snake Island.Anonymous/The Associated Press

Thirteen Snake Island border guards who defied Russian aggression – and were considered dead by Ukraine after communication was lost with the island – are alive, but in Russian captivity.

The border guards became internationally famous for their profane rebuke of a Russian warship that approached the tiny Black Sea island, a strategic Ukrainian outpost that is just 0.17 square kilometres in size.

Ukrainian authorities said the 13 men were killed last week in a Russian attack on the island. President Volodymyr Zelensky announced they had “died heroically,” and would each be honoured as a “Hero of Ukraine.”

Russian state media, which have issued reports on the war in Ukraine at odds with what is taking place on the ground, subsequently reported that the men had surrendered and were taken by ship to Crimea.

On Monday, Ukraine’s navy confirmed that the men are alive, saying Russia had taken them captive. Also in Russian custody were two priests and their assistants, who had set sail for the island to help any victims who may have remained after the Russian attack.

“We demand from Russia the immediate release of the illegally captured citizens of Ukraine,” the navy said in a statement.

On Feb. 25, a Russian warship approached the island and ordered the men to stand down, according to an audio recording and video of the encounter that quickly went viral.

The guards’ profane riposte has become a mantra for Ukrainians and those sympathetic to their efforts to defend against the Russian invasion. The Kremlin has called the war a “military operation” to rid Ukraine, and its democratically elected government, of Nazis.

In the official Russian account of what happened at Snake Island, 82 Ukrainian troops “voluntarily laid down their arms,” and boarded the Russian ship, at which point 16 Ukrainian navy vessels attempted to “attack the ships of the Black Sea Fleet by using swarming tactics.”

Russia claimed that in the marine battles that ensued “16 boats of the Ukrainian navy were destroyed.”

Ukraine has in turn accused Russia of twisting facts, saying those on the island attempted twice to repulse the attacking forces before a shortage of supplies left them “unable to continue defending the island.”

The reason the border guards were presumed dead, the Ukrainian navy said, was that Russian forces “completely destroyed the island’s infrastructure,” including its lighthouse and antennas.

Attempts to contact those on the island and learn about its fate were futile, the navy said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said authorities in Kyiv said 13 Ukrainians were killed by a Russian warship on Snake Island. In fact, recent reports by authorities in Kyiv are that the 13 are alive and were captured by the Russians.

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