Ukrainian soldiers sit in a bus
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Ukraine Says Working On ‘Further Stages’ To Extract Fighters From Azovstal

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The Ukrainian government says it is continuing efforts to complete the evacuation of its fighters from the Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold in the southern city of Mariupol, after around 260 soldiers, some of them wounded, were able to get out of the sprawling complex.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on May 17 that Ukraine was working on “further stages” of the evacuation of fighters, writing in a post on Telegram that “God willing, everything will be fine.”

She did not give any further details of the operation.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said 264 Ukrainian fighters — including 53 who were “seriously wounded” — were ferried out of the plant on May 16 and taken to Russia-controlled territory and that efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered,” including 51 gravely wounded.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said 53 badly wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while another 211 were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Both areas are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.

Months of Russian bombardment reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of civilians before Ukraine ceded control of the strategic Sea of Azov port, where hundreds of troops and civilians had been holed up for weeks in underground bunkers in the sprawling Azovstal industrial complex.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement on May 17.

“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel…. Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” the statement added.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on May 16 that Ukrainian military and intelligence negotiators as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations orchestrated the evacuation.

“Ukraine needs its heroes alive,” Zelenskiy said.

However, he warned that the Ukrainian fighters may not be freed immediately, adding that negotiations over their release will require “delicacy and time.”

Ukrainian Troops Evacuated From Mariupol, Yielding Strategic City To Russia
Ukrainian Troops Evacuated From Mariupol, Yielding Strategic City To Russia

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 17 that Ukrainian fighters who “surrendered” would be treated “in accordance with international standards,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed this.

The Russian Defense Ministry earlier announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the steelworks for treatment in a town held by separatists, while Kyiv said the Ukrainian fighters would be exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.

However, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, as calling the Ukrainian fighters “Nazi criminals” that should not be exchanged.

Another lawmaker, Leonid Slutsky, said that although Russia had a moratorium on the death penalty, it should “think carefully” about capital punishment for the Azov fighters.

The Ukrainian military leadership said the Azovstal defenders forced Moscow to station some 20,000 troops in Mariupol, preventing them from rapidly capturing other parts of the country.

While the evacuation of the last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol marked a defeat for Ukraine, Russia’s bombardment turned the port with a prewar population of some 400,000 into rubble and rendered it unusable.

British military intelligence said in its daily bulletin on May 17 that Russia’s growing reliance on indiscriminate artillery bombardment in the conflict betrayed a limited capacity to accurately identify targets and “an unwillingness to risk flying combat aircraft routinely beyond its own front lines.”

The bulletin posted on Twitter said that in another operational theater, the Chernihiv region north of Kyiv, Russia’s heavy use of artillery destroyed or damaged an estimated 3,500 buildings during its failed advance toward the Ukrainian capital.

Some 80 percent of the damage has been caused to residential buildings, the U.K. bulletin said, cautioning that Russia will likely continue to rely heavily on massive artillery bombardment in its attempt to regain momentum in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military said Russia was “continuing its offensive” in the east of the country, adding “the enemy focused its main efforts on Donetsk” in the east.

An unnamed Western military source quoted by the BBC said that Putin and his military chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, were believed to be directly intervening in Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine and making decisions normally made by more junior officers.

Meanwhile, Sweden on May 17 signed a formal request to join NATO, a day after Stockholm said it would seek membership in the 30-member Western military alliance amid security concerns sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The move came a day after Finland also announced that it was seeking to join the alliance.

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