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Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces are seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20 2022. Picture: HANDOUT via REUTERS
Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces are seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20 2022. Picture: HANDOUT via REUTERS

Kyiv  — The commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment said in a video published on Friday that civilians and heavily wounded fighters had been evacuated from Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks, giving no further clue about the fate of the rest of its defenders.

“We have constantly emphasised the three most important conditions for us: civilians, wounded and dead,” Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, the commander, said in the video shared on the Telegram messaging app.

“The civilians have been evacuated. The heavily wounded received the necessary assistance and they were evacuated, to be later exchanged and delivered to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Prokopenko said.

Ukraine ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down on Monday but has since given few details of what it describes as an effort to rescue fighters from Azovstal, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance the ruined port.

Russiandefence minister Sergei Shoigu said that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Azovstal had surrendered so far. Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that number and Reuters has not been able to verify it.

Britain said on Friday about 1,700 fighters had surrendered and an unknown number remained inside.

A full abandonment of the bunkers and tunnels of the bombed-out plant would end the most destructive siege of a war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Prokopenko said the process of removing the dead from Azovstal was still under way.

“I hope that in the near future, relatives and Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honour,” he said.

Russia needs Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s main seaports, to cement its control of land it has seized along the coast, reaching all the way west to annexed Crimea.

The city is now an urban wasteland shattered by artillery and street-by-street fighting.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says Mariupol’s last defenders — regular soldiers as well as members of the National Guard, to which the Azov Regiment belongs — are national heroes, and that he hopes they can be exchanged for Russian prisoners.

Moscow calls the Azov Regiment “Nazis”. The unit, formed in 2014 as a militia to fight Russian-backed separatists, denies being fascist, and Ukraine says it has been reformed from its radical nationalist origins.

The Kremlin has said the Azovstal defenders would be treated in line with international norms. Some Russian lawmakers have demanded they be tried for war crimes and one said they should face the death penalty.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has been given access to register hundreds of prisoners from the plant, but has not specified how many there are. 

Reuters

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