KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian fighters who doggedly defended a steel mill in the devastated port city of Mariupol have completed their mission, Ukrainian officials said, and efforts were underway to rescue the last of the defenders who remained inside.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said more than 260 fighters, including some badly wounded, were evacuated from the hulking Azovstal plant Monday and taken to areas under Russia’s control. Officials planned to keep trying to save an unknown number of fighters who stayed behind.
“The work to bring the guys home continues, and it requires delicacy and time,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
The evacuation of some of the defenders came as Moscow suffered another diplomatic setback in the war, with Sweden joining Finland in deciding to seek 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 pounded targets in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, and the death toll kept climbing with the war set to enter its 12th week on Wednesday.
Ukraine Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 seriously wounded fighters were taken from the Azovstal plant to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. An additional 211 fighters were evacuated to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor. She said an exchange would be worked out for their return home.
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 plant. He said the “heavily wounded” were getting medical help.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It’s our principle,” he said.
Before the evacuations 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. There was no immediate word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.
After nightfall Monday, several buses pulled away from the steel mill accompanied by Russian military vehicles. Maliar later confirmed that the evacuation had taken place.
Maliar said the “defenders of Mariupol” had fulfilled all their tasks, and it was impossible to “unblock Azovstal by military means.”
“Mariupol’s defenders have fully accomplished all missions assigned by the command,” she said.
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 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.
Elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern city of Sievierdonetsk came under heavy shelling that killed at least 10 people, said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. In the Donetsk region, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Facebook that nine civilians were killed in shelling.
The western Ukrainian city of Lviv was rocked by loud explosions early Tuesday. Witnesses counted at least eight blasts accompanied by distant booms. An Associated Press team in Lviv, which was under an overnight curfew, said the sky west of the city was lit up by an orange glow.
The chairman of the Lviv Regional Military Administration said the Russians fired on military infrastructure in the Yavoriv district. The city of Yavoriv is less than 10 miles (about 15 kilometers) from the Polish border.
Ukrainian troops also advanced as Russian forces pulled back from around the northeastern city of Kharkiv in recent days. Zelenskyy thanked the soldiers who reportedly pushed them all the way to the Russian border in the Kharkiv region, saying in a video message: “I’m very grateful to all the fighters like you.”
Video showed Ukrainian soldiers carrying a post that resembled a Ukrainian blue-and-yellow-striped border marker. Then they placed it on the ground while a dozen soldiers posed next to it, including one with belts of bullets draped over a shoulder.
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. It was not immediately possible to verify the exact location.
Ukrainian border guards said they also stopped a Russian attempt to send sabotage and reconnaissance troops into the Sumy region, some 90 miles (146 kilometers) northwest of Kharkiv.
Russia has been plagued by setbacks in the war, most glaringly in its failure early on to take the capital of Kyiv. Much of the fighting has shifted to the Donbas but also has turned into a slog, with both sides fighting village-by-village.
Howitzers from the U.S. and other countries have helped Kyiv hold off or gain ground against Russia, a senior U.S. defense official said. 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.
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 for disinformation or other attempts to divide them.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, has objected to allowing Sweden and Finland to join NATO, saying they failed to take a “clear” stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and imposed military sanctions on Turkey.
All 30 current NATO members must agree to let the Nordic neighbors 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 has 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 Odesa and other AP staffers around the world contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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