By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The regiment that fiercely defended a steel mill as Ukraine’s last stronghold in the port city of Mariupol declared its mission complete on Monday after more than 260 fighters, some seriously injured, were evacuated and taken to areas under Russian control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the evacuation to separatist-held territory was done to save the lives of fighters who endured weeks of Russian assaults in the maze of underground passages under the towering Azovstal steelworks. He said the “seriously injured” were receiving medical aid.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to live. This is our principle,” he said. An unknown number of combatants remained to await further rescue efforts.
Defenders of the steelworks came out as Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in its war with Ukraine, with Sweden joining Finland in deciding to seek NATO membership. And Ukraine made a symbolic gain when its forces reportedly pushed Russian troops back to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
Yet Russian forces have pounded targets in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbass, and the death toll, already in the thousands, has steadily risen as the war looms ahead. enter its 12th week on Wednesday.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 seriously injured fighters were taken from the Azovstal plant to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. A further 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor.
She said an exchange would be worked out for their return home. Officials also planned to continue trying to rescue the fighters who remained inside.
“The work to bring the guys home continues, and it takes delicacy and time,” Zelenskyy said.
Ahead of the start of Monday’s evacuations of the steelworks, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the injured to leave the plant for treatment in a city held by pro-Moscow separatists. It was not immediately clear whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.
After dark on Monday, several buses drove away from the steel plant accompanied by Russian military vehicles. Maliar later confirmed that the evacuation had taken place.
“Thanks to Mariupol’s defenders, Ukraine gained extremely important time to form reserves and consolidate forces and receive help from partners,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.
The commander of the Azov regiment, which led the defense of the plant, said in a pre-recorded video message released on Monday that the evacuation marked the end of the regiment’s mission.
“Absolutely safe plans and operations do not exist in war,” Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko said, adding that all risks were taken into account and part of the plan was to save “as many lives as possible”.
Elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, the Luhansk region governor. In the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians had been killed in shelling.
The city of Lviv in western Ukraine was rocked by heavy explosions on Tuesday morning. Witnesses counted at least eight explosions accompanied by distant booms, and the burning smell appeared some time later. An Associated Press team in Lviv, which was under overnight curfew, said the sky west of the city was lit with an orange glow.
But Ukrainian troops have also advanced as Russian forces retreated from the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who allegedly pushed them to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
The video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a pole that looked like a Ukrainian border post with blue and yellow stripes. Then they put him on the ground while a dozen soldiers posed beside him, including one with belts of bullets draped over his shoulder.
“I am very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “I’m very grateful to all fighters like you.”
The Ukrainian border service said the video showing the soldiers came from the border “in the Kharkiv region”, but did not give details, citing security reasons. It was not immediately possible to verify the exact location.
Ukrainian border guards said they also stopped a Russian attempt to send sabotage and reconnaissance troops to the Sumy region, about 146 kilometers northwest of Kharkiv.
Russia was plagued with setbacks in the war, the most glaring being its early failure to take the capital of kyiv. Much of the fighting has shifted to Donbass but has also turned into a drag, with both sides fighting village by village.
Howitzers from the United States and other countries helped kyiv resist or gain ground against Russia, a senior US defense official said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military assessment, said Ukraine had pushed Russian forces within half a mile to 2.5 miles (1 to 4 kilometers) from the Russian border, but could not confirm if it was all the way. at the border.
The official said the long-range Russian strikes also appeared to target a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, near the Polish border. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Away from the battlefield, Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership followed a similar move by neighboring Finland in a historic shift for the counties, which hadn’t been aligned for generations.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the candidacy period and urged her fellow citizens to prepare.
“Russia said it would take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot exclude that Sweden is exposed, for example, to misinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide.”
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of NATO, has reinforced his objection to their membership. He accused the countries of not taking a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.
He said Swedish and Finnish officials who are due in Turkey next week should not bother to come if they intend to try to convince Turkey to drop its objection.
“How can we trust them?” Erdogan asked during a joint press conference with the visiting Algerian president.
NATO’s current 30 members must agree to let northern neighbors join.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow “has no problem” with Sweden or Finland applying for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure in this territory will bring good sure our reaction in response”.
Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an effort to curb NATO expansion, but saw that strategy backfire. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the membership process for both could be quick.
Europe is also trying to stifle war funding from the Kremlin by cutting the billions of dollars it spends on Russian energy imports. A proposed EU embargo is facing opposition from some countries dependent on Russian imports, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.
McQuillan reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa and other AP staff from around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine