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The Ukrainian soldiers who were trapped under the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, enduring weeks of Russian bombing attacks, have been evacuated, Ukraine’s military said Monday.
“Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during his nightly address Monday.
Ukraine’s military did not reveal the exact number of troops who were evacuated, although it is believed to be between a few hundred to 1,000, many of whom were suffering serious injuries and some of whom were missing limbs, officials said.
Russia-backed separatists later announced that 256 Ukrainian soldiers “have surrendered,” Reuters reported.
“Thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military – the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys. Among them are the seriously wounded, they are being provided with medical aid,” Zelenskyy said.
He added: “The operation to rescue the defenders of Mariupol was started by our military and intelligence officers. The work continues to bring the boys home, and this work needs delicacy. And time.”
The soldiers persisted through one of the most prolonged battles of the war in Ukraine and remained in the steel plant even though Russian forces captured the rest of the city, but they have completed their mission, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said.
“Mariupol’s defenders have fully accomplished all missions assigned by the command,” Maliar said.
At least 50 soldiers were evacuated from the plant to Novoazovsk and more than 200 were evacuated to Olenivka, Reuters reported.
“Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from partners,” Maliar added. “And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means.”
Many of the Ukrainian soldiers were taken to Russian-controlled territories, though it is not immediately clear if they will be released or treated as prisoners of war.
Despite losing the steel plant, Ukraine’s military thwarted nearly a dozen Russian attacks, Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces said on Facebook.
“Eleven enemy attacks were repulsed in Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours, five tanks, one Tor anti-aircraft missile system, six artillery systems, twelve units of armored combat vehicles, and one enemy vehicle were destroyed,” the post read.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.