May 17, 2022 - World

Ukraine ends "combat mission" at Mariupol steel plant

A view of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 10.
A view of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 10. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine said Monday that it had stopped fighting at a steel plant besieged by Russian forces in the port city of Mariupol and evacuated more than 250 soldiers through a humanitarian corridor to Russian-controlled areas.

Why it matters: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that the evacuation was necessary to save the soldiers, who have endured a months-long defense of the plant, though he stressed that bringing them back to Ukrainian-controlled areas "requires delicacy and time."

  • Fully capturing the steel plant would largely be a symbolic victory for Russia, as it has already captured almost all of Mariupol after weeks of besieging and bombing the city.
  • It would also free up Russian soldiers for its ongoing offensive in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which has so far largely stalled or has been rebuffed by Ukrainian counteroffensives.

What they're saying: "Thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military — the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys," Zelensky said.

  • "Among them are the seriously wounded, they are being provided with medical aid," he added.
  • "I want to emphasize: Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words."
  • "The operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol was started by our military and intelligence officers. To bring the boys home, the work continues, and this work needs delicacy. And time."

Ukraine's military said in a Facebook post that the "'Mariupol' garrison has fulfilled its combat mission," adding that it "ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel."

  • It said that 53 seriously wounded soldiers were taken to a medical institution in Novoazovsk, a Ukrainian town east of Mariupol, while another 211 went to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor.
  • It was unclear if the evacuated soldiers would be considered prisoners of war, AP notes.
  • An undisclosed number of Ukrainian soldiers remain in the plant, though operations to rescue them "are ongoing," according to Ukraine's armed forces.

Tunnels under the Azovstal steel plant functioned as shelters for hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers for several weeks as Russian forces launched air and ground attacks on it.

  • The Ukrainian soldiers defending the steelworks repeatedly refused Russia's demands to lay down their arms and called for international assistance, including for a third-party country to evacuate them to neutral territory.
  • Ukraine said that all women, children and elderly people had been evacuated from the plant in early May.

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