More than 260 Ukrainian soldiers, many of them wounded, have been evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, appearing to cede control of the city to Russia after 82 days of bombardment.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Maliar said late on Monday that 53 heavily wounded soldiers were evacuated to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. More than 200 others were transported through a corridor to Olenivka, Maliar said.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said that the soldiers defending the steel plant had “performed their combat task” and now the main goal was to save the lives of personnel. By holding the steelworks, they stopped Russian forces from rapidly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, its statement on Facebook said.
It was unclear how many soldiers remained in the steel plant, but Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said: “We hope to save the lives of our boys”.
“I want to underline: Ukraine needs its Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle,” he said in a video statement.
The evacuation is likely to mark the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.
For Ukrainians, the Azovstal plant has become a symbol of resistance, with hundreds of troops continuing to fight on there even after the rest of the city had fallen to Russian forces. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.
The Azov regiment said it was fulfilling orders to save the lives of its troops.
The regiment, which has in the past had nationalist far-right affiliations, was a militia formed to fight the Russians after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 but has become a unit of the Ukrainian national guard.
It said its troops in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in the south-east, had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure western arms needed to withstand Moscow’s assault.
Hours before the evacuation, Russia said it had reached an agreement to remove the wounded soldiers. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk,” Russia’s defence ministry said.
Azovstal’s last defenders had been holding out in bunkers and tunnels built deep underground to withstand nuclear war. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant, one of the largest metallurgical facilities in Europe, earlier this month.
The wife of an Azov regiment member described conditions at the plant earlier on Monday: “They are in hell. They receive new wounds every day. They are without legs or arms, exhausted, without medicines,” Natalia Zaritskaya said.
As the Azov evacuations were under way, fighting continued on frontlines across Ukraine.
In eastern Ukraine, the focus of Russia’s military campaign, nine civilians were killed in attacks on Donetsk, the region’s governor said.
A series of explosion also struck the western Ukraine city of Lviv, with reports of about 10 blasts in quick succession.
Ukraine said troops defending its second-largest city, Kharkiv, had repelled Russian forces and advanced as far as the border with Russia. The reports could not be immediately verified.
With Moscow showing no sign of relenting nearly three months into its invasion, Finland and Sweden were poised to give up decades of military non-alignment by joining the Nato military alliance.
The move faces resistance from Turkey, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirming his country’s intention to block the applications, accusing Finland and Sweden of harbouring terror groups, including outlawed Kurdish militants.
Source: The Guardian
BDST: 1203 HRS, May 17, 2022