Ukraine’s government says it is continuing efforts to complete the evacuation of its fighters from the steelworks in Azovstal, the last stronghold in the southern city of Mariupol, after around 260 soldiers, some of them wounded, were able to get out of the sprawling complex . .
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on May 17 that Ukraine was working on “further steps” to evacuate the fighters, writing in a Telegram message that “God willing, everything will be fine.”
She did not give further details about the operation.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said 264 Ukrainian fighters – 53 of them “seriously injured” – were airlifted from the factory on May 16 and taken into Russian-held territory and that efforts were underway to evacuate those who were. were still inside.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, 51 of them seriously injured.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said 53 seriously injured soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while 211 others were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Both areas are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
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Months of Russian bombardment reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of civilians before Ukraine ceded control of the strategic Sea of Azov port, where hundreds of soldiers and civilians had been locked up for weeks in underground bunkers in the sprawling industrial complex of Azovstal.
“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in a May 17 statement.
“The Supreme Military Command ordered the commanders of the units stationed in Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel… The defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” the statement added.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late May 16 that Ukrainian military and intelligence negotiators as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations orchestrated the evacuation.
“Ukraine needs its living heroes,” Zelenskiy said.
However, he warned that the Ukrainian fighters might not be released immediately, adding that negotiations over their release would require “delicacy and time”.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 17 that Ukrainian fighters who “surrender” would be treated “in accordance with international standards”, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed it.
Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier announced a deal for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a separatist-held town, while kyiv said Ukrainian fighters would be swapped for captured Russian soldiers.
However, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin as calling the Ukrainian fighters “Nazi criminals” who should not be traded.
Another lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said that although Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, it should “think carefully” about capital punishment for Azov fighters.
Ukraine’s military leadership said defenders of Azovstal forced Moscow to station some 20,000 troops in Mariupol, preventing them from quickly capturing other parts of the country.
While the evacuation of the last Ukrainian defenders from Mariupol marked a defeat for Ukraine, Russian shelling turned the port of around 400,000 pre-war residents into rubble and rendered it unusable.
Britain’s military intelligence said in its May 17 daily bulletin that Russia’s growing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment in the conflict betrayed a limited ability to accurately identify targets and “a reluctance to risk flying regularly combat aircraft beyond its own front lines”.
The bulletin posted on Twitter indicates that in another theater of operations, the Chernihiv region north of kyiv, Russia’s heavy use of artillery destroyed or damaged around 3,500 buildings during its failed advance towards the Ukrainian capital.
About 80% of the damage was to residential buildings, the British bulletin said, warning that Russia is likely to continue to rely heavily on heavy artillery bombardment in its bid to regain momentum in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military said Russia was “continuing its offensive” in the east of the country, adding that the “enemy was concentrating its main efforts on Donetsk” in the east.
An unnamed Western military source quoted by the BBC said Putin and his chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, were intervening directly in the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine and making decisions normally taken by junior officers.
Meanwhile, Sweden signed a formal application for NATO membership on May 17, a day after Stockholm said it would seek membership in the 30-member western military alliance amid problems of security brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The move came a day after Finland also announced it was looking to join the alliance.