Ukrainian fighters have completed weeks of defense of a besieged steel factory in the strategic port city of Mariupol. Hundreds of fighters (tens of people were seriously injured) evacuated the complex on Monday.

“Ukraine needs to have Ukrainian heroes alive,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly speech as delicate evacuation continued. “We hope we can save the lives of our people. Some of them are seriously injured and are receiving medical assistance.”

Mariupol’s network of Azovstal ironworks and its underground tunnels has evacuated about 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, including many from the Azov Battalion, one of Ukraine’s most skilled and controversial military units. It worked for a few weeks as a place and a final holdout.

Mariupol officials said in mid-April that as many as 1,000 civilians were hiding in the underground network. They were trapped in a violent Russian assault for several weeks before all women, children and the elderly were evacuated earlier this month. Those who ensured safety explained the brutality of a long siege in a cold, stinking bunker, with no sunlight, reduced food and water supplies.

Inside the besieged steelworks of Mariupol, a symbol of courage and fear

Russian bombardment of the Azofustari mill seems to have continued for the last few days. A video posted on Telegram by local authorities over the weekend showed white, bright and burning munitions pouring into the plants. Although it was not possible to identify the type of ammunition individually, British military experts told Reuters that it looked like an attack by phosphorus or incendiary.

Ukrainian officials reached a ceasefire agreement with Russian troops on Monday and saw dozens of buses leaving the factory. Complex evacuation is coordinated with the help of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malyar, said 53 seriously injured soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a nearby town controlled by Russian-backed separatists. She said another 211 were transferred to another Russian village, Olenifka. Moscow and Kieu are mediating prisoner exchanges to ensure their release.

Malyar said it was unclear how many were still inside, but authorities were still working to rescue the remaining soldiers. Ukrainian officials said last week that the factory had nearly 1,000 holdout fighters.

The Battle of Mariupol, one of the bloodiest clashes of the war, has received worldwide attention. Russia has dumped waste into a city in the southeastern part of the Black Sea, where the population had surged to about 450,000 before the invasion. Early on, Moscow troops surrounded Mariupol’s water and electricity, constantly bombed it, and turned much of the city into rubble.

Russia is preparing for a parade at the scene of the Mariupol Theater tragedy

Losing Mariupol is a significant setback for Kyiv. This will allow Russia to establish an important overpass between the Crimean Peninsula, the peninsula annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the Russian-controlled territory of eastern Ukraine.

However, Ukrainian military leaders said their troops in the city kept Russians away long enough to buy decisive time for troops fighting elsewhere. And Western officials said Russia’s Mariupol was unable to make significant profits, despite concentrating its resources in eastern Ukraine for several weeks.

Ukrainian military headquarters said in a statement on Monday that it “had very much time to build reserves, reorganize troops and get support from partners.”

“The defenders of Mariupol’s are the heroes of our time … they are eternal in history.”

Adam Taylor, Niha Masih and Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report.

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