LONDON — The Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the final stronghold of the besieged port city of Mariupol have left the steel plant after 82 days, according to officials who said they had completed their “combat mission.”
More than 260 Ukrainian troops were evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks to Russian-occupied areas. “The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced in a statement on Tuesday. “The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel.”
“Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” the military staff said.
According to the Russian state news agency TASS, the Russian Defense Ministry had announced that an agreement was reached to evacuate the wounded soldiers from the plant on Monday.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Monday night that 53 badly wounded soldiers were evacuated to a hospital in Novoazovsk, and that the rest of the fighters were brought through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Maliar added that preparation for a prisoner exchange is now underway.
“Measures are ongoing to save the rest of the fighters from Azovstal,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to release Mariupol by military means. Now the most important thing is to save the lives of our military.”
Reuters reported that five buses of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in Novoazovsk late Monday night, with some of the fighters being removed from vehicles in stretchers. It is believed that 600 troops were stationed inside the steel plant.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the evacuation was done to save the lives of the soldiers who endured months of Russian bombing and brutal attacks.
“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” he said in a late-night address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care.”
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive,” he added. “It’s our principle.”