After weeks of blockade, around 260 Ukrainian soldiers have left the Azov steelworks in Mariupol. Among them were 53 seriously injured, said the Ukrainian general staff on Facebook on Monday. 211 other Ukrainian fighters were also brought to a town occupied by Russian troops. They were later to be released in a prisoner exchange, it said. The evacuation of the other defenders of the Azovstal Steelworks is still in progress.

“Thanks to the Mariupol defenders, we got critically important time to form reserves, redeploy forces and receive help from our partners,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maljar wrote on Facebook. All tasks to defend Mariupol have been completed. It was not possible for Azovstal to fight free, she emphasized. The most important thing now is to protect the lives of the Mariupol defenders.

The seriously injured were taken to the pro-Russian separatist-controlled city of Novoazovsk for medical treatment, it said. The remaining soldiers would go to Olenivka. The Russian Defense Ministry had previously spoken of a ceasefire for the evacuation. Several hundred soldiers are said to still be in the steelworks.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasized in his daily video address that Ukraine needs its heroes alive. In addition to Ukrainian authorities, the International Red Cross and the United Nations were also involved in the evacuation of the soldiers from the steelworks.

The port city of Mariupol was surrounded shortly after the Russian invasion in February. The strategically important city was exposed to heavy bombing and rocket attacks. Experts and Ukrainian authorities assume thousands of civilian deaths. Russian troops gradually took control after the siege. However, the last Ukrainian defenders of the city holed up in the huge steelworks with several underground floors.

The Russian troops did not risk any storming attempts, but sealed off all entrances. “Block this industrial zone so that not even a fly comes out,” Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin instructed his military in front of the camera. The area was repeatedly bombed. Hundreds of civilians who also fled to the steelworks from advancing Russian troops had already been evacuated from the factory premises in the past few days.

There were long negotiations about the withdrawal of the soldiers, some of whom were seriously injured, and who had hardly any supplies or water left. In Ukraine, there were also accusations against the government in Kyiv that it had abandoned the last defenders of Mariupol. The authorities repeatedly emphasized that they were unable to solve the blockade by Russian troops.