Ukraine works to rescue last soldiers from Azovstal in evacuation mission

More than 260 troops, many of them seriously injured, were brought up from underground plant overnight

A wounded Ukrainian soldier is taken on board a bus at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Reuters
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Efforts were on Tuesday under way to rescue the last group of Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol after more than 260 troops were evacuated overnight.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “delicacy and time” were needed as officials worked to free the remaining soldiers defending the last corner of the city under control of the defenders.

It was not immediately clear how many people remained at the vast steelworks on Tuesday morning.

Servicemen trapped at Azovstal have been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built underground to withstand potential nuclear attacks. Since Russia invaded its neighbour in February, the site, one of the largest metal plants in Europe, has become a symbol of the stiff resistance shown by the Ukrainians in defending their homeland. Civilians were evacuated from Azovstal earlier this month.

Ukraine Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar on Tuesday said 53 seriously wounded fighters had been brought out of the site and transported to hospital in Novoazovsk. The town east of Mariupol is under the control of Russian-backed separatists.

A bus carrying wounded soldiers from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol drives under Russian military escort. Reuters

Another 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka in the Donetsk region through a humanitarian corridor. Ms Maliar said an exchange would be worked out for their return home.

Stretchers carrying injured soldiers were loaded on to buses after nightfall. The vehicles were accompanied by a Russian military convoy as they departed.

Ms Maliar said the “defenders of Mariupol” had fulfilled all their tasks and it was impossible to “unblock Azovstal by military means”.

“Mariupol’s defenders have fully accomplished all missions assigned by the command,” she said.

The commander of the Azov Battalion, which led the defence of the plant, said in a video message released on Monday that the mission had ended with as many lives saved as possible.

“Absolutely safe plans and operations don’t exist during war,” Lt Col Denis Prokopenko said.

Mr Zelenskyy said “work to bring the guys home continues and it requires delicacy and time”.

The Speaker of Russia’s Parliament on Tuesday said the legislature will consider banning the exchange of Russian prisoners of war for captured members of Azov Battalion.

The faction, once a nationalist militia but now integrated into Ukraine’s National Guard, became the face of resistance against Russian troops in the strategic southern city of Mariupol.

But Moscow has depicted the group as a main perpetrator of the alleged radical anti-Russian nationalism – or even Nazism – from which it claims it needs to protect Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

The battalion denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi, and Ukraine says it has been reformed to shift away from its radical nationalist origins.

Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the State Duma, said Azov Battalion members were "Nazi criminals" who should not be included in prisoner exchanges.

"They are war criminals and we must do everything to bring them to justice," he said.

The Duma website said Mr Volodin had asked the defence and security committees to prepare an instruction to that effect.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said up to 3,500 buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv during the Russian army’s failed push to take the Ukrainian capital.

About 80 per cent of the damage was to residential buildings.

The MoD said the scale of destruction in areas bombarded by Russian troops shows their preparedness to use artillery in inhabited areas “with minimal regard to discrimination or proportionality”.

“In the coming weeks, Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on massed artillery strikes as it attempts to regain momentum in its advance in the Donbas,” the MoD said in an intelligence update posted on Twitter.

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Updated: May 20, 2022, 12:05 PM