Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in the nearby city of Novoazovsk on Monday evening. In one, marked with a Z like many Russian military vehicles, men were stacked on stretchers on three levels. A man was expelled, his head wrapped in bandages.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message Monday evening that it was “a difficult day” but “like all the others, precisely aimed at protecting our country and our people”.
“Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes,” he added.
The Ukrainian army statement said the soldiers’ position had not been in vain as they were able to slow the advance of some 20,000 Russian troops and prevent the rapid capture of Zaporizhzhia, a town in the northwest.
Holding back Russian troops around Mariupol “gave us the opportunity to prepare and create defensive lines” and “give a decent rebuff to the aggressor,” he said, giving the Ukrainian military “ a critical time to form reserves, regroup forces and receive assistance from partners.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its daily briefing on Tuesday that Ukrainian troops at the steel plant had “laid down their arms and surrendered”.
Capturing Mariupol is key because it would allow Russian forces in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it invaded and annexed in 2014, to join those in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has refocused its efforts.
It comes amid a Russian invasion that most military experts and Western officials say was botched. Russian President Vladimir Putin has withdrawn his forces from an advance on the capital kyiv after suffering heavy casualties, and is now focusing on areas around pro-Russian separatist regions in the east of the country.