KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities announced late Monday the end of their combat operation in the besieged city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters have held out for weeks in the face of near-constant Russian bombardment.
The army ordered the remaining troops who had taken shelter under a steel mill there to concentrate on efforts “to save the lives of their personnel”.
“We hope we can save the lives of our guys,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late-night video address. “I want to emphasize that Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes.”
The Azovstal Steelworks – the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the decimated city – has become a powerful symbol of the suffering inflicted by Russia and the unwavering bravery of the Ukrainian defenders. Billboards and murals supporting the city and the factory appeared across the country.
In a statement on Monday evening, the Ukrainian General Staff said the Mariupol garrison had “fulfilled its combat mission”.
Ukrainian officials said evacuations from the Azovstal steel plant had begun. The army said 264 soldiers, including 53 “seriously injured”, were taken by bus to areas controlled by Russian forces.
The announcement came hours after Russian media began reporting that Ukrainian military buses were being evacuated from the steel plant, near the center of Mariupol, the last part of the city not to fall into the hands of Russian troops. .
Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said 53 “seriously injured” people had been evacuated to a medical center in Novoazovsk, a Ukrainian town near the Russian border controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian army, another 211 people were evacuated via a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka, also under Russian control, and would then be returned to the territory under Ukrainian control “under a procedure of ‘exchange “.
It is unclear how many soldiers remained inside the plant, with officials and relatives of the fighters saying in recent days that there could be up to 2,000, including hundreds injured. The Ukrainian General Staff said that “measures to save the defenders who remain in the territory of Azovstal are underway”.
The evacuation comes after weeks of appeals from soldiers and civilians who had holed up in the factory with inadequate supplies or medical care.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
On May 8, Mr. Zelensky announced that more than 300 civilians had been evacuated by the United Nations and the International Red Cross. Negotiating safe passage for the trapped soldiers, most of whom belong to the elite Ukrainian Azov regiment, proved more difficult. The soldiers’ wives and relatives had traveled to the Vatican and Istanbul, making impassioned pleas for help.
As of early Tuesday, all details of the plan remained unclear.
“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison implements the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the now combined forces in the bunkers, said in a statement. a message posted on the garrison’s official Telegram channel on Monday evening. He did not say what the order was or how it would be carried out.
Pro-Russian social media accounts have speculated that Ukrainian soldiers will be treated and then exchanged for Russian POWs, but there has been no official statement on the full terms of any deal. Other pro-Russian social media accounts touted the evacuation as a triumph that would deal a severe blow to the morale of Ukrainian troops fighting in the area.
Since the port city was surrounded by Russian forces in early March, military analysts had predicted that the soldiers would be defeated or killed overnight. Yet they continued to fight – with Ukraine’s National Military Command reporting battles around the perimeter as recently as last weekend.
At the same time, Russian forces continued to rain bombs and artillery on the four square miles of twisted metal that was once one of the largest steelworks in the country.
In recent days, Turkey had said it was working on a plan to evacuate soldiers by sea, but there was no indication that Russia would accept a proposal and that active fighting complicated any discussion on the issue.
Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed report.