Ukraine Says Mission at Mariupol Steel Plant Is Complete

KYIV, Ukraine — The regiment that doggedly defended a steel mill as Ukraine’s last stronghold in the port city of Mariupol completed its mission Monday after more than 260 fighters, including some badly wounded, were evacuated and taken to areas under Russia’s control, Ukrainian officials said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the evacuation to separatist-controlled territory was done to save the lives of the fighters who endured weeks of Russian assaults in the maze of underground passages below the hulking Azovstal steelworks. He said the “heavily wounded” were getting medical help.

“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” he said. To await rescue efforts, an unknown number of fighters remained behind.

The steel mill’s defenders got out as Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in the war, with Sweden joining Finland in deciding to seek NATO membership. It also gained a symbolic advantage when the Ukrainian forces drove the Russian troops from the Kharkiv area to its border.

Continue reading: Finland and Sweden Wrestle With the Benefits—and Risks—of Joining NATO

Yet, Russian forces continued to bombard targets in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. The death toll of the war, which entered its 12th week Wednesday, was already high and continues to climb.

Hanna Maliar, Deputy Defense Minister, stated that 53 fighters who were seriously injured were transported from Azovstal to an Azovsk hospital east of Mariupol. A humanitarian corridor allowed for the evacuation of an additional 211 fighters to Olenivka. For their return to home, they would need an exchange.

“Mariupol’s defenders have fully accomplished all missions assigned by the command,” she said.

Officials said they would continue to try to save those fighters that remained. Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 100 to 1000 fighters at this plant.

“The work to bring the guys home continues, and it requires delicacy and time,” Zelenskyy said.

Before Monday’s evacuations from the steelworks began, the Russian Defense Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the mill for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists. It was not immediately clear if the injured would be treated as prisoners of war.

Monday night saw several buses and Russian military vehicles leaving the steel mill with their passengers. Maliar confirmed the evacuation later.

“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from partners,” she said. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”

On Facebook, the Ukrainian General Staff stated that the Mariupol garrison had completed its mission. The commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of the plant, said in a prerecorded video message released Monday that the regiment’s mission had concluded, with as many lives saved as possible.

“Absolutely safe plans and operations don’t exist during war,” Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko said, adding that all risks were considered and part of the plan included saving “as many lives of personnel as possible.”

Serhiy Hadidai, governor of Luhansk, stated that heavy shelling caused the destruction of Sievierdonetsk, an eastern city in Donbas. At least 10 were killed. The governor of the Donetsk Region, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko stated on Facebook that nine civilians died in the shelling.

Lviv in western Ukraine was struck by loud explosions Tuesday morning. Witnesses said they heard at least 8 blasts that were accompanied by distant booms. The smell of burning wood was also evident a short time later. The Associated Press team from Lviv reported that the orange glow lit the west side of the city after an overnight curfew.

Lviv Regional Military Administration’s chairman stated that the Russians had attacked Yavoriv District’s military infrastructure. Yavoriv, located 15km (less then 10 miles) from Poland’s border.

Last week, Russian forces around Kharkiv, northeast Ukraine pulled back their troops. In turn, the Ukrainian soldiers advanced. Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to soldiers for pushing them all the way to Russia’s border in Kharkiv.

Video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a post that resembled a Ukrainian blue-and-yellow-striped border marker. They then placed the post on the ground, while twelve soldiers stood next to it with one of them wearing a belt of bullets over his shoulder.

“I’m 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 the fighters like you.”

Continue reading: TIME’s Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky

The Ukrainian border service said the video showing the soldiers was from the border “in the Kharkiv region,” but would not elaborate, citing security reasons. The exact coordinates could not be confirmed immediately.

Ukrainian border guards stated that they had stopped an attempt by Russia to send reconnaissance and terrorist troops into Sumy Region, about 90 miles (146 km) northwest Kharkiv.

Russia’s war has seen many setbacks, the most prominent being its early failure to seize Kyiv as the capital. The fighting is now centered in the Donbas, but it has also become a slow process with each side fighting village by village.

According to senior U.S. defence officials, howitzers from other countries and the U.S. have helped Kyiv gain or hold ground against Russia. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment, said Ukraine has pushed Russian forces to within a half-mile to 2.5 miles (1 to 4 kilometers) of Russia’s border but could not confirm if it was all the way to the frontier.

Officials claimed that Russian long-range missile strikes had also targeted the Ukrainian military training centre in Yavoriv (near the Polish border). At this time, there were no 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 counties, which were nonaligned for generations.

Continue reading: Finland and Sweden are likely to join NATO. Here’s What That Means for Europe

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the application period and urged her fellow citizens to brace themselves.

“Russia has said that that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot rule out that Sweden will be exposed to, for instance, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, who is a NATO member, raised objections to the countries joining. He accused the countries of failing to take a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.

He stated that the Finnish and Swedish officials due to arrive in Turkey next Tuesday should not be bothered to travel if they are trying to convince Turkey to change its mind.

“How can we trust them?” Erdogan asked at a joint news conference with the visiting Algerian president.

All current NATO members have to agree that the Nordic neighbor should be allowed to join.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow “does not have a problem” with Sweden or Finland as they apply for NATO membership, but that “the expansion of military infrastructure onto this territory will of course give rise to our reaction in response.”

Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24 in what he said was an effort to check NATO’s expansion but has seen that strategy backfire. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that both countries could join the NATO family quickly.

McQuillan was reporting from Lviv in Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau, Mstyslav Chernov, and Andrea Rosa, both in Kharkiv. Elena Becatoros, Odesa, and all other AP staff around the globe contributed to this report.

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