More than 260 Ukrainian soldiers have been evacuated from a steel plant in Mariupol, the country’s deputy defence minister said, after a weeks-long standoff with Russian forces in the besieged southern port city.
Anna Malyar said in the early hours of Tuesday that 53 seriously wounded fighters were taken from the Azovstal steelworks to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while an additional 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor.
An exchange would be worked out for their return home, she said.
Malyar added that missions are underway to rescue the remaining fighters inside the Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold of resistance in Mariupol.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”
Azovstal has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s ongoing invasion of the country, which began in late February and has forced more than six million people to flee Ukraine amid widespread destruction.
Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the plant, where they continued to fight even after the rest of the city had fallen to Russian forces.
“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address on Monday night. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Odesa, said a source indicated that a number of far-right Azov regiment members had decided to surrender, but there had been no official confirmation.
“In the past days, we’ve heard from President Zelenskyy and from other senior officials here that these were very tough negotiations,” Abdel-Hamid said.
The Ukrainian regiment at the steel plant said it was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops by evacuating them.
“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” the Azov regiment said in a social media post.
It said its troops in Mariupol had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces, which continue with their offensive in the country’s east, and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia’s assault.
The evacuation came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.
“An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded,” the country’s defence ministry said on Monday. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.”