Ukraine says rescue under way at Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol

Ukraine has confirmed that an operation is under way to rescue its troops, many of them wounded, from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol after nearly three months of heavy bombardment that have pulverised the strategic port city.

President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the nation in the early hours of Tuesday and confirmed that the operation, which was agreed with Russian forces, was taking place.

“I want to emphasise that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” Zelensky said. “To get the boys home, the work goes on, and it takes delicacy and time.

An official from the defence ministry said an undisclosed number of Ukrainian fighters remained in the besieged steel plant on Tuesday after more than 260 surrendered the previous day as part of an agreed prisoner swap with the Russian forces who control Mariupol.

But some Russian parliamentarians on Tuesday called for a ban on swapping Ukrainian soldiers for captured Russian troops from the Azov battalion, the military unit that had been leading the resistance at the steel works.

Vyacheslav Volodin, Duma speaker and confidant of Russian president Vladimir Putin, described fighters from the Azov battalion as “Nazi criminals” who should not be exchanged. Russia’s general prosecutor’s office asked the country’s supreme court to declare it a “terrorist organisation.”

Russia has repeatedly justified its invasion of Ukraine by claiming it is an operation to “de-Nazify” the country.

Partly composed of self-declared nationalists but also including non-ethnic Ukrainians among its ranks, the Azov battalion fighters have been widely regarded as heroes in Ukraine since they began fighting in the Russian-fomented proxy separatist war in the far eastern Donbas region in 2014.

Originally formed as a voluntary fighting group but now serving in the National Guard, Azov fighters in 2014 recaptured Mariupol from Russian-backed separatists.

Zelensky has given an award to one of their commanders based in Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko.

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, told a press conference the operation to rescue the troops was continuing but that the topic was “very sensitive, and this means that we cannot disseminate information about the details, as any information could hinder this process”. She declined to reveal how many Ukrainian soldiers remained in Azovstal.

Maliar described the Russian speaker’s comments as “a political statement aimed at domestic propaganda and internal political processes in the Russian Federation”.

She confirmed reports that the 53 wounded soldiers evacuated on Monday had been transferred by Russian soldiers to the occupied Azov Sea port town of Novoazovsk for medical treatment. She said 211 Ukrainian servicemen who were in good health had been transported to Olenivka, another Russian-occupied town in the Donbas region, pending a hostage exchange.

“The Ukrainian state is doing everything possible and not possible to save Ukrainian servicemen,” Maliar said, praising their fierce resistance to Russian forces. “We are proud of them and they are our heroes,” she said.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Zelensky’s administration, wrote in a tweet that the 83-day defence of Mariupol would go down in history.

“Azovstal defenders ruined Russia’s plan to capture the east of Ukraine, took a hit on themselves and proved the real ‘combat capability’ of Russia . . . This completely changed the course of the war”.

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