By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — More than 260 Ukrainian fighters, some seriously injured, were evacuated Monday from a steel mill in the ruined city of Mariupol and taken to areas under Russian control, Ukraine’s military said.
Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said 53 seriously injured fighters had been taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. A further 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor. An exchange would be set up for their return to the country, she said.
Malyar said missions were underway to rescue the remaining fighters inside the factory, the last stronghold of the resistance in the crumbling port city of Mariupol.
“Thanks to Mariupol defenders, Ukraine gained extremely important time,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.
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 the Ukrainian president praised the soldiers who repelled Russian forces near the border.
Earlier on Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the injured to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists.
After dark on Monday, several buses drove away from the steel plant accompanied by Russian military vehicles.
It was not immediately clear whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.
Russian forces pounded targets in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as Donbas, and the death toll, already in the thousands, rose steadily as war was to enter Wednesday in its 12th week.
The eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians had been killed in shelling.
But Ukrainian troops have also advanced as Russian forces retreated from the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has thanked soldiers who allegedly pushed to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region in a symbolic gain.
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.
The international response to the Russian invasion accelerated.
Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership followed a similar move by neighboring Finland in a historic change 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.
“We will do our best to unblock the situation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “I can’t guarantee that will happen because the positions are quite strong.”
Also on Monday, McDonald’s said it began selling off its Russia business, ending a relationship that spanned more than three decades. He cited the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, noting that staying in Russia “is no longer tenable, nor in line with McDonald’s values.” The company was the first fast food restaurant to open in the Soviet Union.
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