More than 250 Ukrainian fighters who surrendered to Russian troops at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and Kyiv have said they have ordered the evacuation of the entire garrison, marking the end of Europe’s bloodiest battle in decades.
Reuters saw the buses leave the metallurgical plant at night, and five of them arrived in the Russian-ruled city of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said it would be injured.
In one, marked with the Latin letter “Z”, which became a symbol of the storming of Russia, the wounded lay on a stretcher in three burrows. One man was taken out on a cart, his head was tightly wrapped in thick bandages.
While both sides talked about an agreement under which all Ukrainian troops would leave the huge metallurgical plant, many details have not yet been revealed, including how many fighters remained inside and whether some form of prisoner exchange had been agreed upon in advance.
The Kremlin has said that President Vladimir Putin has personally guaranteed the treatment of prisoners in accordance with international standards.
“The Mariupol garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a statement.
“The Supreme Military Command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel … The defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time.”
The video of the Russian Ministry of Defense shows that the fighters leave the plant in daylight, some were carried on stretchers, others with raised hands, the Russian military.
Russia has said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters “laid down their arms and surrendered,” including 51 seriously wounded. Ukraine said 264 servicemen, including 53 wounded, had left the plant and efforts were under way.
The surrender seems to mark the end of the battle for Mariupol, where, according to Ukraine, tens of thousands of people were killed during the Russian bombing and siege.
The city now lies in ruins. Its complete capture is Russia’s greatest victory in the war, giving Moscow complete control over the coast of the Sea of Azov and an inseparable part of eastern and southern Ukraine about the size of Greece.
But this is due to the fact that the Russian campaign has failed elsewhere, and its troops around the city of Kharkov in the northeast have recently retreated at the fastest pace since they were driven out of the north and the area around the capital Kiev in late March.
Authorities on both sides gave little clue about the final fate of the last defenders of Mariupol. Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Verashchuk said that Kyiv seeks to organize an exchange of prisoners for wounded Ukrainians as soon as their condition stabilizes, but neither side discloses the terms of any particular deal.
“We hope to be able to save the lives of our guys,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Some of them are seriously injured. They get help. Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes. “
The United Nations, which helped civilians evacuate from Azovstal this month, did not take an operational part in the evacuation, said UN spokesman Saviano Abreu.
Heavy shelling was reported
Mariupol is the largest city Russia has captured since its February 24 invasion, giving Moscow a clear victory for the first time in months, during which its campaign in Ukraine largely faced a military catastrophe against an underestimated enemy.
In a statement Monday, the Azov Ukrainian Regiment, which held out at the steel plant, said it had reached its goal in 82 days of resistance, making it possible to defend the rest of the country.
“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 statement said.
The regiment, which is now part of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces, emerged as a far-right militia, and Moscow portrayed the defeat of its fighters as central to its stated goal of “denationalizing” Ukraine.
The United Nations and the Red Cross claim that thousands of civilians have died in Russia’s siege of a once prosperous port of 400,000 people, with true figures not estimated but likely to be the worst in Europe, at least since the 1990s wars. Chechnya and the Balkans.
For several months, Mariupol residents were driven to basements under perpetual bombardment, had no access to food, fresh water and heat, and bodies were littered in the streets. Two strikes – at the maternity hospital and the theater, where hundreds of people took refuge – have become world emblems of Russia’s tactics of destruction of settlements.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have been buried in mass graves or makeshift pits in gardens. Ukraine says Moscow has sent mobile cremation trucks to erase evidence of civilian deaths and forcibly deported thousands of residents to Russia.
Moscow denies attacks on and deportation of civilians and says it has taken in refugees. It says he is now restoring normal life in the city, part of Donbass, which he declares on behalf of the separatists he has supported since 2014.
Ukraine is moving forward
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have been advancing at the fastest pace in recent days for more than a month, ousting Russian forces from the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
Ukraine says its forces have reached the Russian border 40 km north of Kharkiv. They have also advanced at least 40 kilometers east of the Seversky Donets River, where they could jeopardize supply lines for Russia’s main offensive in the Donbas.
Russia continues to insist on this advance, despite significant losses, including as a result of a failed river crossing last week. Zelensky’s office said on Tuesday that the entire front line around Donetsk was under constant massive fire.
In response to the invasion, historically non-aligned Finland and Sweden announced plans to join NATO, leading to the very expansion of the Western alliance, which Putin called one of the main excuses for his “special military operation.”
After weeks of threatening unspecified revenge, Putin seemed to have gone downstairs, saying on Monday that Russia had “no problems” with either Finland or Sweden, and that their NATO membership would not be a problem unless the alliance deployed there. additional troops or weapons.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that “there will probably be no big difference” if Finland and Sweden join NATO, as they have already cooperated in the alliance’s military exercises.