Ukraine has confirmed that more than 260 Ukrainian soldiers, many of them wounded, have been evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, appearing to cede control of the city to Russia after 82 days of bombardment.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar, on Monday, said that 53 heavily wounded soldiers were evacuated to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. More than 200 others were transported through a corridor to Olenivka, Maliar said.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, in a statement, said that the soldiers defending the steel plant had “performed their combat task” and now the main goal was to save the lives of personnel. By holding the steelworks, they stopped Russian forces from rapidly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhzhia.
It was unclear how many soldiers remained in the steel plant, but Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a video statement: “We hope to save the lives of our boys. I want to underline: Ukraine needs its Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle.”
However, Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned that the Ukrainian troops may not be freed immediately and warned that negotiations over their release will require “delicacy and time”.
The evacuation is likely to climax the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war, and possibly a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.
For Ukrainians, the Azovstal plant has become a symbol of resistance, with hundreds of troops continuing to fight there even after the rest of the city had fallen to Russian forces. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.