The battle for the beleaguered Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol came to an end on Monday. Ukraine has announced that the “combat mission” at the steel plant, the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated port city taken over by Russian forces, has ended. The authorities in kyiv and Moscow have reached an agreement to begin evacuating the militiamen who were stationed in the Azovstal industrial zone, as announced by the Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense, Hanna Maliar. At the moment, some 250 have been transferred to two Ukrainian towns now under the control of the Kremlin and will be exchanged for Russian soldiers. Contacts continue to free the rest of the fighters who remain in Azovstal, which has become the symbol of the Ukrainian resistance against the brutality of the Russian invasion. “Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes,” President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed in a speech to the nation on Monday night. “We hope to save the lives of our boys,” he added.
The Ukrainian General Staff has ordered the remaining Azovstal defenders to focus on “saving the lives of their personnel”. The Mariupol garrison “has fulfilled its mission,” he said in a note. The exact number of soldiers who remain in the bunkers and basements of the steelworks has not been reported, in which hundreds of civilians who have already been transferred to Ukrainian territory through various humanitarian corridors were also sheltering until just a few days ago.
At the moment and after weeks of negotiations and pleas from the families of the last in Azovstal, 53 seriously wounded combatants have been evacuated to a health center in the town of Novoazovsk, about 40 kilometers from Mariupol, in an area under the control of the separatists. pro-Russian forces through which Moscow controls the area and uses as a cover and argument for the invasion. Another 211 have been transferred to Olenivka, near the city of Donetsk, in the occupied area of Donbas. Ukraine speaks of an operation to “save the defenders of Mariupol”.
A dozen buses with Ukrainian militiamen left Azovstal on Monday night, Reuters reported. Images from that agency show dozens of soldiers arriving, some of them wounded and on stretchers, in Novoazovsk.
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“Thanks to the work of the Ukrainian military, the Armed Forces, the intelligence services, the negotiating group, the Red Cross committee and the UN, we hope to save the lives of our boys,” Zelensky said in a statement. video in which he asks for understanding before the agreement reached. “Among them there are serious injuries. They are getting help. I want to underline that Ukraine needs its Ukrainian heroes to live,” he adds. “In order to return the boys home, the work continues and that work requires delicacy and time,” concludes the president. Zelensky does not speak of surrender
Shortly before, the Azov Battalion, an important militia integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine and whose members are part of the resistance in Mariupol, made public a statement recorded on video by Denys Prokopenko, one of its managers within Azvovstal in which he admits, without speaking of surrender, that they have carried out orders from above in order to save lives. In the Telegram social network they add that they hope to have the support of the Ukrainians.
“War is art and not science. When you have obeyed the order and, at the same time, you have kept the maximum number of your people, you are before the highest level of military management, especially when the decision comes from the highest military command, “says Prokopenko. The militiaman does not hide, despite everything, that he has “doubts about having made the right decision.”
The Russian Army reported for its part as early as Monday afternoon that an agreement had been reached with Ukraine on the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal, according to a note quoted by the Interfax agency. Defense also announced a ceasefire for the evacuation. Moscow assured that the wounded soldiers were going to be transferred to a medical center in Novoazovsk, as it has been. A transfer that means, in reality, to evacuate towards territory controlled by the enemy. Media around the Kremlin have spoken of the evacuation as a major Russian victory that will deal a huge blow to Ukrainian morale. Though nothing in what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “special military operation” seems to be going according to his plan, and his list of victories and targets is shrinking by the minute.
Desperate situation in Azovstal
A group of wives and mothers of some of the quartered militiamen has been trying for days to seek help in the international sphere. Four of them have requested in Istanbul this Monday the intermediation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They did so accompanied by the Ukrainian singer Ruslana, winner of the Eurovision contest in 2004. The trip took place just the day the group Kalush Orchestra, winner of this year’s contest on Saturday, returned home. Its leader, rapper Oleh Psiuk, shouted from the stage after finishing her performance: “Help Ukraine, help Mariupol, help Azovstal!” Last week, two more of these women were received by Pope Francis at the Vatican.
The situation in the industrial zone, the last bastion of the resistance in Mariupol, had been desperate for weeks. Several expeditions had been organized to evacuate civilians, but hundreds of militiamen remained inside, some seriously wounded. In addition, provisions and medicines were increasingly scarce, since the supply lines were non-existent as the area was surrounded and almost permanently under enemy fire.
The operation to rescue the first group of civilians from Azovstal, who were sheltering in different parts of the industrial zone, was completed on May 3. That day several dozen women and children arrived in Zaporizhia. Previously, attempts had been made several times to get the convoy out of there without success. It was achieved only after the UN and the International Red Cross led the agreement to evacuate the bunkers of the steel mill. After that first group of evacuees, a few more have followed until there are hardly any civilians left among the refugees in the large metallurgical plant.
With the capture of Azovstal, Vladimir Putin’s Army aspires to claim full control of the city in the Azov Sea port. Mariupol, the Ukrainian city hardest hit in this war, is symbolic for the Kremlin. Its definitive fall would allow Moscow to unite the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which it has illegally occupied since 2014, with Donbas, the region that has been at war since that same year and in which intense fighting has also taken place these weeks.
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