Yesterday, Monday, 265 Ukrainian military defenders of the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold of resistance in the port city of Mariupol, were evacuated to the town of Olenevka, in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Among them were 51 with serious injuries, who were sent to a hospital in the town of Novoazovsk, also under the control of pro-Russian forces.
This morning, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that all of them surrendered. "In the last 24 hours, 265 fighters laid down their arms and surrendered, including 51 who were seriously wounded," reads the Russian military statement. The same information was also released by the separatist authorities in Donetsk.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, Irina Vereshuk, announced this afternoon that the "humanitarian operation to save the defenders of Azovstal continues." In the cellars of the steel mill, according to different sources, there could still be more than a thousand Ukrainian fighters from the "Azov" battalion, a unit that Moscow considers a "Nazi" group, of whom some 600 would be wounded.
However, the advisor to the Ukrainian Presidency, Mijailo Podoliak, admitted today that the negotiations to exchange the Ukrainian prisoners of Azovstal "are proving to be very difficult, although there is hope." President Vladimir Putin, in need of some triumph to present to his citizens and who, when launching the current offensive in Ukraine, specified that one of his objectives is to "denazify" and "punish" the Ukrainian neo-Nazi extremists, is hardly going to accept the exchange of the fighters of the «Azov» battalion. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, however, has just pointed out that the Azovstal prisoners "will be treated in accordance with international standards."
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Monday night in relation to the military held by the Donbass rebel forces that “in order to achieve their return home, an exchange procedure will be carried out. With regard to the defenders who still remain in the Azovstal territory, the rescue measures will continue to be carried out with joint efforts." In her words, «the defenders of Mariupol fully fulfilled the tasks assigned by their commanders. Unfortunately, we do not have a chance to liberate Azovstal by military means." Malyar stressed that "now the most important common task for Ukraine and the whole world is to save the lives of the defenders of Mariupol."
Similarly, the Ukrainian Army General Staff expressed itself in a statement: “The Mariupol garrison completed its combat mission. The highest military command issued an order to the commanders of the units located in Azovstal to save the lives of their troops." Thanks to them, the note continues, “we were able to have the time we critically needed to create reserves, regroup forces and receive assistance from our allies. The defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time. They will forever be in history."
For his part, the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, said yesterday that "our military have launched the operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol (...) the work continues and delicacy is needed" for its successful completion. "Thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian army, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN, we hope we can save the lives of our boys," Zelensky said.
The "humanitarian corridor" in Azovstal to evacuate Ukrainian servicemen willing to lay down their arms was organized yesterday by the Russian Defense Ministry. For this, a momentary ceasefire was declared. According to Moscow, the operation was agreed upon with the Ukrainian Army. Mariupol began to be attacked from the day after the beginning of the Russian invasion, on February 24, and has been besieged for almost two months. The city fell on April 21, but not the Azovstal steelworks, against which Russian troops have been thoroughly used with artillery, missiles, aviation and, according to kyiv, even prohibited weapons such as phosphorus bombs have been used.