Efforts were underway on Tuesday to rescue the last defenders inside the Azovstal steel plant in the devastated port city of Mariupol after Ukrainian officials said the fighters had “completed their mission” and that there was no way to liberate the plant by military means.
The Ukrainian military avoided using the term “surrender” to describe the attempt to withdraw from the steel plant to save as many lives as possible. Officials planned to continue trying to rescue an unknown number of fighters who remained behind. It was not clear whether soldiers evacuated to areas under Russian control would be considered prisoners of war.
The regiment that persistently defended a steel mill like UkraineIn the port city of Mariupol, it announced the completion of its mission on Monday after evacuating more than 260 fighters, among whom were some seriously wounded.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the evacuation to separatist-held territory was done to save the lives of fighters who had endured weeks of Russian attacks in the maze of underground passages beneath huge Azovstal steel plants. He said the “seriously injured” were receiving medical help.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to survive,” he said. “This is our principle.” An unknown number of fighters remained, awaiting further rescue efforts.
Defenders of the steel plant walked out while Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in its war with UkraineIn deciding to seek NATO membership. Ukraine made symbolic gains when its forces reportedly pushed Russian forces to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
However, Russian forces bombed targets in the eastern Ukrainian industrial zone known as Donbass, and the death toll, already at several thousand, continued to climb as the war entered its 12th week on Wednesday.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 seriously wounded fighters were taken from the Azovstal plant to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. An additional 211 fighters were evacuated to Olinevka via a humanitarian corridor.
She said an exchange would be worked out to bring them back home. Officials also planned to continue trying to rescue the fighters who remained inside.
“The work to bring the men home continues, and it requires precision and time,” Zelensky said.
Before the evacuations began on Monday from the steel plants, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the plant for treatment in a town controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
After dark on Monday, several buses withdrew from the steel plant accompanied by Russian military vehicles. Mallyaar later confirmed that the evacuation had taken place.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained crucial time to form reserve forces, regroup forces and receive assistance from partners,” she said. “And they have accomplished all their tasks. But it is impossible to break Azovstal by military means.”
The commander of the Azov regiment, who commanded the defense of the plant, said in a pre-recorded video message posted on Monday that the evacuation marked the end of the regiment’s mission.
“There are no completely safe plans and operations during the war,” said Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko, adding that all risks had been considered and that part of the plan included saving “as many lives as possible.”
Elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern city of Severdonetsk was hit by heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haiday, governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in the bombing.
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv was hit by loud explosions early Tuesday morning. Witnesses counted at least eight explosions accompanied by raids from a distance, and the smell of burning appeared some time later. A team from the Associated Press in Lviv, which was under an all-night curfew, said the sky west of the city was lit up by an orange glow.
But Ukrainian forces also advanced with the withdrawal of Russian forces from neighboring areasKharkiv in recent days. Zelensky thanked the soldiers who reportedly pushed them all the way to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
A video clip showed Ukrainian soldiers holding a post that looked like a blue and yellow striped Ukrainian border sign. Then they put her on the ground while dozens of soldiers stood next to her, including one with belts of lead around his shoulder.
“I am very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on behalf of me and my family,” Zelensky said in a video message. “I am so grateful to all fighters like you.”
The Ukrainian Border Service said the video clip showing the soldiers were 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 forces to the Sumy region, about 90 miles northwest of Kharkiv.
Russia was plagued by setbacks in the war, most notably its early failure to capture the capital, Kyiv. Much of the fighting turned into the Donbass but it also turned into a flame, with the two sides fighting village after village.
A senior US defense official said howitzers from the United States and other countries helped Kyiv hold out or gain ground against Russia. 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 of the Russian border, but could not confirm whether they were all the way to the border.
The official said the Russian long-range strikes appeared to have targeted a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, near the Polish border. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Off the battlefield, Sweden’s decision to seek NATO membership followed a similar decision by neighboring Finland in a historic shift for provinces, which had been unaligned for generations.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged its citizens.
“Russia said it would take countermeasures if we joined NATO,” she said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed, for example, to misinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us,” he added.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of NATO, has escalated his objection to joining. He accused countries of not taking a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups deemed terrorist by Ankara, and imposing military sanctions on Turkey.
He said Swedish and Finnish officials expected to arrive in Turkey next week should not bother coming if they intended to try to persuade Turkey to drop its objection.
“How can we trust them?” Erdogan asked at a joint press conference with the visiting Algerian president.
All 30 current NATO members must agree to allow its Scandinavian neighbors to join.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow “has no problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure over this region will of course lead to our reaction.”
Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an attempt to halt NATO expansion but saw this strategy as counterproductive. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the membership process for both could be fast.
Europe is also stifling funding for the Kremlin’s war by cutting the billions of dollars it spends on Russian energy imports. The proposed EU ban faces opposition from some countries that depend on Russian imports, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria also has reservations.
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