Besieged Mariupol soldiers evacuated

Ukraine has confirmed that hundreds of its fighters trapped for more than two months in Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks have been evacuated.

Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Maliar, said 53 badly wounded soldiers were taken to the town of Novoazovsk, held by Russian-backed rebels.

She said another 211 were evacuated using a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka – also a rebel-held town.

Russia earlier said a deal had been reached to evacuate the injured troops.

About a dozen buses carrying Ukrainian fighters who were holed up beneath the besieged plant were seen leaving the huge industrial site in the southern port city on Monday evening, Reuters news agency reported.

Russian state-run media outlets also posted footage of what they said were injured Ukrainian soldiers being evacuated from Azovstal.

Ms Maliar said the troops would be exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.

In his video address after midnight local time on Tuesday, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that Ukrainian military, intelligence and negotiating teams, as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations (UN) were involved in the evacuation operation.

“Ukraine needs its heroes alive,” he said.

However, he cautioned that the Ukrainian troops may not be freed immediately and warned that negotiations over their release would require “delicacy and time”.

Ukrainian Member of Parliament (MP), Lesia Vasylenko, told the BBC it was essential that the deal struck with Russia, with the help of the Red Cross and the UN, went through and the soldiers exchanged.

Otherwise, she said, “the fate of these very brave men will be absolutely unknown and will be in Russian hands, which is far from an ideal situation”.

On Tuesday, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the steel plant would be treated “in line with the relevant international laws”.

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers – Marines, the National Guard – including the Azov regiment – border guards, police and territorial defence units – as well as a number of civilians with young children have been holed up at the site since advancing Russian troops encircled the southern city in early March.

The sprawling four-square mile complex was a maze of tunnels designed to survive a nuclear war.

Last month, Mr Putin called off a planned assault on the site, citing fears of high Russian casualties. But heavy bombardment continued virtually non-stop, Ukrainian commanders have said. -Reuters

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