Mariupol forces taken to Russia-held areas

Pro-Russian military escorting buses transporting Ukrainian forces after their ‘surrender’ at Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Pro-Russian military escorting buses transporting Ukrainian forces after their ‘surrender’ at Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. | Photo Credit: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO

Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters, including wounded men carried out on stretchers, left the vast steel plant in Mariupol where they mounted a dogged last stand and turned themselves over to Russian hands, signalling the beginning of the end of the city’s siege.

Russia on Tuesday called the operation a mass surrender. The Ukrainians avoided using that word — but said the garrison had completed its mission, and that they were working to pull out the fighters that remain.

On Monday, more than 260 fighters left the Azovstal plant — their last redoubt in Mariupol — and were transported to two towns controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, officials on both sides said. Other fighters — their precise numbers unknown — remain inside the ruins of the fortified mill that sprawls over 11 square km in the otherwise Russian-held city.

Azovstal’s fall would mark the complete capture of Mariupol, a significant milestone in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. It would give Russia its biggest victory yet after multiple setbacks — both military and diplomatic. Its troops have suffered costly losses.

Wrapping up Mariupol’s capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. It could also free up Russian forces for fighting elsewhere.

But Ukraine sought to turn the evacuation into a symbol for its side, too, highlighting the role that the Azovstal fighters played in boosting Ukrainian morale.

“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in announcing that troops had begun leaving the relentlessly bombarded mill and its warren of tunnels and bunkers.

“The work continues to bring the guys home and it requires delicacy and time,” he said.

It’s not clear what will happen to the fighters — and a Russian official cast doubt over whether Moscow would agree to hand over all of the men in a prisoner of war exchange.

Ukraine Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 264 fighters were evacuated from the plant, including 53 “heavily wounded” brought to a medical facility. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov gave slightly different numbers: 265 evacuees, 51 of them seriously wounded. The discrepancy couldn’t immediately be explained.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 12:17:48 am |