Troops holed up in the last Ukrainian stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol have begun evacuating, appearing to cede control of the once prosperous city to Russia after months of bombardment.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said 53 injured troops from the Azovstal steelworks were taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, about 30 kilometres to the east.
Another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said.
All the evacuees would be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she said.
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Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in Novoazovsk late on Monday. Some of the evacuated troops were wounded and carried out of the buses on stretchers. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.
“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late-night address.
“There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”
Ukraine’s military said it had “ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel” and troops there had fulfilled their combat mission.
Efforts to rescue troops still inside were under way, the military said.
Ukrainian troops say they held out in Azovstal for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia’s assault.
But the evacuation likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.
Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion and of Russia’s willingness to devastate Ukrainian cities that hold out.
The evacuation came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.
Azovstal’s last defenders had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built deep underground. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant earlier this month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join NATO alliance.
“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.
The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.
However, Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and Russia would respond if the alliance moved weapons or troops forward.
Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.
“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status.
Moscow calls its invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
Nearly three months old, Russia’s invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40km north of Kharkiv.