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Ukrainian mayor describes being held hostage by Russian soldiers

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The mayor of a Ukrainian town who was taken hostage by Russian forces recently emerged in France, where he's been sharing his story and asking for help for his country. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley caught up with him in Paris and sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thirty-three-year-old Ivan Fedorov is heading off to the Paris airport.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

IVAN FEDOROV: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mr. Fedorov.

BEARDSLEY: The mayor of Melitopol's boyish appearance is at odds with the smoldering anger in his eyes. In March, the Russian soldiers who occupied his city put a bag over his head and took him from his workplace. The scene caught on surveillance cameras went viral. It even caught the attention of President Macron, who Fedorov has just met.

FEDOROV: Emmanuel Macron - he said that he know about my kidnapped and that he spoke about my situation with President Putin, with President Zelenskyy.

BEARDSLEY: Fedorov says 29 other officials from his region haven't been as lucky and are still being held by the aggressor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEDOROV: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: During his three-day visit to France, Fedorov recounted his ordeal to fascinated television audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FEDOROV: (Through interpreter) The main goal of this trip - it was to show European Union French citizens what is realistic situation in Ukraine and in occupation cities because Russian propaganda - it work very good.

BEARDSLEY: That propaganda kept many Europeans from supporting Ukraine when Russia invaded the Donbas and took Crimea in 2014, he says. But today, Europeans are beginning to understand.

FEDOROV: It's war between Russian Federation and all civilian world. And all united citizens must be united with Ukraine to win this war because if we don't win this war, the war come to houses of European Union also.

BEARDSLEY: Despite Russia's troop buildup along their border, Fedorov says Ukrainians were shocked on February 24.

FEDOROV: I think nobody believes that, in 21st century in the middle of Europe, we will start fully war and with rockets to capital - European capital Kyiv.

BEARDSLEY: Melitopol was a town that looked toward the West, he says, with several projects financed by the European Development Bank. That made the Russians angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: So did the thousands of protesters who marched with Ukrainian flags chanting, occupiers. They were shot at. Fedorov says he was held captive for five days and interrogated about three things.

FEDOROV: They want to save Russian language. But in Melitopol, we have no problem with the Russian language because 95% speak on Russian in Melitopol region. And, for example, I visit my family. I also speak in Russian. And they said that they want to make us free.

BEARDSLEY: Free from the so-called Nazis controlling their town, he says. And perhaps most bizarrely, he says the Russians believed they needed to protect the few remaining World War II veterans from being mistreated.

FEDOROV: The soldiers from Russian Federation are zombie. They doesn't understand really the situation and does not want to understand the situation.

BEARDSLEY: As he prepares to return to his war-torn country and occupied city, this mayor says he doesn't know how the war will end. But one thing is sure, he says. Ukraine will win because Ukrainians will never, ever surrender.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "YELLOW NOISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.