Mariupol – More than 250 Ukrainian fighters surrendered to Russian forces at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, and Kyiv said on Tuesday it had ordered its full garrison to evacuate, bringing an apparent end to the bloodiest battle in Europe for decades.
Reuters saw buses leave the steelworks overnight and five of them arrived in the Russian-held town of Novoazovsk, where Moscow said the wounded will be treated.
In one, marked with the Latin letter “Z” that symbolises Russia’s assault, wounded men were stacked on stretchers three bunks high. One man was wheeled out, his head tightly wrapped in thick bandages.
While both sides spoke of a deal under which all Ukrainian troops will abandon the huge steelworks, important details were not yet public, including how many fighters still remained inside, and whether any form of prisoner swap had been agreed.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing that Kyiv will not disclose how many fighters were inside the plant until all were safe.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin personally guaranteed the prisoners will be treated under international standards.
“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,’ the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement.
“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel.”
In a TV address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said: “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”
Russian defence ministry video showed fighters leaving the plant in daylight, some carried on stretchers, others with hands up to be searched by Russian troops.
Russia said at least 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, including 51 severely wounded. Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left.
The surrender appears to mark the end of the battle of Mariupol, where Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people were killed under months of Russian bombardment and siege.
The city now lies in ruins. Its complete capture is Russia’s biggest victory of the war, giving Moscow total control of the coast of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine.
But it comes as Russia’s campaign faltered elsewhere, with troops retreating from the outskirts of Kharkiv in the northeast at the fastest pace since they were driven from the north and outskirts of Kyiv at the end of March.