By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and CIARAN McQUILLAN
kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — The regiment that tenaciously defended a steel plant as Ukraine’s last stronghold in the port city of Mariupol completed its mission Monday after more than 260 fighters, including some seriously wounded, were evacuated to areas under Russian control. Ukrainian officials said.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the evacuation to separatist-held territory was done to save the lives of fighters who endured weeks of Russian attacks in the maze of underground passages beneath the massive Azovstal steelworks. He said the “severely injured” were receiving medical help.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It is our principle,” she said. An unknown number of fighters stayed behind to await further rescue efforts.
Defenders of the steel plant withdrew as Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in the war, with Sweden joining Finland in seeking NATO membership. And Ukraine made a symbolic gain when its forces reportedly pushed Russian troops back to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
Still, Russian forces struck targets in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas, and the death toll, already in the many thousands, continued to rise as the war enters its 12th week on Wednesday.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 seriously wounded fighters had been taken from the Azovstal plant to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. Another 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor. She said that an exchange would be worked out for her return home.
“The defenders of Mariupol have fully accomplished all the missions assigned by the command,” he said.
Officials also planned to keep trying to save fighters who remained inside. Military experts generally estimate the number of fighters at the plant to be between a few hundred and 1,000.
“The work to bring the boys home continues and requires finesse and time,” Zelenskyy said.
Before Monday’s evacuations from the steel plant began, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the plant for treatment in a city controlled by pro-Moscow separatists. There was no immediate word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.
After dark on Monday, several buses left the steelworks accompanied by Russian military vehicles. Maliar later confirmed that the evacuation had taken place.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from partners,” he said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”
The Ukrainian General Staff also said on Facebook that the Mariupol garrison has completed its mission. The commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of the plant, said in a pre-recorded video message released Monday that the regiment’s mission was over, with as many lives saved as possible.
“There are no absolutely safe plans and operations during war,” Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko said, adding that all risks were considered and part of the plan included saving “as many personnel lives as possible.”
Elsewhere in Donbas, the eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in the shelling.
The city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, was rocked by strong explosions early Tuesday. Witnesses counted at least eight explosions accompanied by distant explosions, and the burning smell became apparent some time later. An Associated Press crew in Lviv, which was under an overnight curfew, said the sky west of the city was illuminated by an orange glow.
The chairman of the Lviv Regional Military Administration said that the Russians fired on military infrastructure in the Yavoriv district. The city of Yavoriv is about 15 kilometers (less than 10 miles) from the Polish border.
Ukrainian troops also advanced as Russian forces withdrew from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who reportedly pushed them to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region.
The video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a pole that resembled a Ukrainian border marker with blue and yellow stripes. He was then placed on the ground while a dozen soldiers posed next to him, including one with bullet belts over one shoulder.
“I am very grateful to him, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on behalf of myself and my family,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “I am very grateful to all the fighters like you.”
The Ukrainian border service said the video showing the soldiers was from the border “in the Kharkiv region” but gave no further details, citing security reasons. The exact location could not be immediately verified.
Ukrainian border guards said they also stopped a Russian attempt to send sabotage and reconnaissance troops into the Sumy region, about 90 miles (146 kilometers) northwest of Kharkiv.
Russia has been plagued by setbacks in the war, most evidently in its early failure to take the capital of kyiv. Much of the fighting has moved into the Donbas, but it has also become hard work, with both sides fighting town by town.
Howitzers from the US and other countries have helped kyiv hold out 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. The US said Ukraine has pushed Russian forces within a half-mile to 2.5 miles (1 to 4 kilometers) of Russia’s border, but could not confirm whether it went all the way. to the border
The official said 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 decision by neighboring Finland in a historic shift for the countries, which have been out of alignment for generations.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to prepare.
“Russia has said that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” he said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden is exposed, for example, to misinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.”
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, raised his objection to their joining. He accused the countries of not taking a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.
He said Swedish and Finnish officials expected in Turkey next week shouldn’t bother coming if they intend to try to convince 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 the Nordic neighbors to join.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow “has no problem” with Sweden or Finland when they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of the military infrastructure on this territory will, of course, lead to our reaction in response”.
Putin launched the invasion on February 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO expansion, but saw that strategy backfire. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the membership process for both could be quick.
McQuillan reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, and other AP employees around the world contributed.
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