More than 260 Ukrainian soldiers, many of them wounded, have been evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, apparently to cede control of the city in favor of Russia After 82 days of bombing.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said late on Monday that 53 seriously wounded soldiers had been taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, and more than 200 others had been taken through a corridor to Olinevka.
It was not clear how many soldiers remained at the steel plant, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “We hope to save the lives of our children.”
“I want to stress: Ukraine needs its Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle,” he said in a video statement.
The evacuation would likely mark the end of the longest bloody battle of the Ukraine War and a major defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian blockade that Ukraine says has killed tens of thousands of people in the city.
For Ukrainians, the Azovstal plant became a symbol of resistance, hundreds of troops continued to fight there even after the rest of the city fell into the hands of Russian troops.
It is believed that about 600 soldiers were inside the steel mill.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that the soldiers defending the steel plant had fulfilled their combat mission.
“The Supreme Military Command has ordered the commanders of the units stationed in Azovstal to save the lives of individuals,” the General Staff said in a statement on its Facebook account. “Efforts are continuing to rescue the defenders who remained on the Azovstal lands.”
The Azov Regiment, in a statement, said that it is carrying out its orders to save the lives of its soldiers.
The Azov Regiment, which in the past had far-right nationalist affiliations, was a militia formed to fight the Russians after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but became a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard.
“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the decision adopted by the Supreme Military Command and hopes to support the Ukrainian people,” the Azov regiment said in a social network.
It said its forces in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov in the southeast, held out for 82 days, providing time for the rest of Ukraine to fight Russian forces and securing Western weapons needed to counter Russia’s onslaught.
Since Russia launched its invasion in February, the destruction of Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s ability to resist a Russian invasion and Russia’s willingness to destroy steadfast Ukrainian cities.
The evacuation came hours after Russia announced that it had agreed to evacuate injured Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.
“An agreement has been reached on the transportation of the wounded,” the Russian Defense Ministry said. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian soldiers are taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.”
The last defenders of Azovstal held out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built deep underground to withstand nuclear war. Civilians were evacuated from inside the factory, which is one of the largest metallurgical installations in Europein advance this month.
The wife of a member of the Azov regiment 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,” said Natalia Zaretskaya.
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