Cordier/AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers who spent weeks barricaded under a huge steel plant amid heavy Russian shelling and shelling have been evacuated to Russian-occupied territory in eastern Ukraine.
The evacuation of the beleaguered Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol was an arrangement that Ukrainian authorities say was reached with the help of the United Nations and other agencies.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said more than 260 soldiers had been evacuated to Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine, including 53 seriously injured fighters who arrived at a medical facility in the occupied city of Novoazovsk. The others are in Olenivka, another occupied town where thousands of Ukrainians are believed to have been taken by Russian troops attacking Mariupol. Russian shelling and shelling destroyed almost the entire city.
Russian media showed soldiers arriving on stretchers.
It is unclear whether the soldiers were taken prisoner or are under UN protection, but Malyar said the soldiers could return home “after a prisoner swap” with Russia.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian authorities worked with the International Red Cross to help secure the evacuation of soldiers. Speaking on his Telegram channel, he said: “We hope we can spare the lives of our soldiers.”
“I would like to emphasize: Ukraine needs its living heroes,” he said.
Hundreds of soldiers remain in the factory. It’s unclear how long it will take to get everyone out.
Soldiers dug into the catacombs of the massive ironworks over 80 days ago, trying to hold on to Mariupol. The UN humanitarian agency evacuated hundreds of civilians last month.