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264 Azovstal defenders evacuated to Russian-controlled territory, promised medical treatment
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said that 264 Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated on May 16 from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol to hospitals in Russian-occupied Novoazovsk and Olenivka.
Of those evacuated, 53 heavily wounded soldiers will receive medical treatment in Novoazovsk, while 211 will be transferred to Olenivka to take part in an upcoming prisoner exchange, according to the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces.
"We are continuing efforts to rescue the defenders who remain at Azovstal," the General Staff said. Earlier reports said that some 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers were at the plant, which remained the only Ukrainian-controlled area of Mariupol.
In his video address to the nation on the night of May 16, President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized that "Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive."
According to Zelensky, Ukraine is continuing negotiations to reach an agreement that will allow Azovstal defenders to return home. "This work needs delicacy and time," said the President.
Read also: Azovstal garrison: ‘We’ll keep fighting as long as we’re alive’
The National Guard's Azov Regiment and the 36th Marine Brigade, holding off at the Azovstal steel plant, are the last Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol, a city with a pre-war population of 450,000, now occupied and nearly completely destroyed by Russian troops.
“The defenders of Mariupol carried out orders, despite all the difficulties, held off the overwhelming forces of the enemy for 82 days and allowed the Ukrainian army to regroup, train more personnel, and receive a large number of weapons from partner countries,” Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Regiment, said in a May 16 video address.
“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the supreme military command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” he added.
According to the garrison’s estimates, in the period between Feb. 24 and April 15, the Azov Regiment alone killed 2,500 Russian soldiers in the city, wounded over 5,000, and also destroyed over 60 and damaged over 30 tanks. This does not include fatalities inflicted by other Ukrainian formations.
According to the Ukrainian command, this continued resistance forced Russia into keeping at least 10 battalion tactical groups away from other critical axes of attack against Ukraine – nearly 10% of the entire Russian force invading Ukraine.
By mid-April, amid immense bloodshed, the Ukrainian garrison got locked up at the Azovstal, a giant industrial complex of 11 square kilometers, nearly 7% of the city’s territory.
Ukrainian soldiers at the Azovstal have repeatedly called on the Ukrainian and world leaders to find a way to get them out of the besieged plant, potentially by organizing an evacuation to a third-party country.
Approximately 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers were trapped in the plant. About 600 of them were wounded, according to one of the soldiers at Azovstal. Having been cut off from the rest of the world for many weeks, they have almost no food and medicine.
The soldier, who was a local police officer, said “injured soldiers without limbs lie next to each other in unsanitary conditions, with flies, sounds of pain, and foul smells.”
On May 15, the wives of the Ukrainian soldiers holding out at Azovstal held a joint press conference via Zoom, calling on the world to join together and evacuate the Ukrainian military from the encircled plant.
“The most important thing is to save the lives of the heroes of Ukraine, not to give (them) posthumous awards,” one of the soldiers' wives, Yuliia Fedosiuk, said.