The Ukrainian unit holed up beneath the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol said on Monday its garrison was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops, an apparent sign that the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war had come to an end.
Five buses and an armored personnel carrier carrying Ukraine's servicemen from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol arrived late on Monday in Novoazovsk, a Reuters witness said.
Some of the evacuees were carried out of the buses on stretchers and carried into a hospital, the witness said. Novoazovsk is now under the control of Russia-backed separatists who have held parts of eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Earlier, a Reuters witness reported that about a dozen of buses left the steel plant. Russian media reported that some of the buses went to a location other than Novoazovsk. Reuters was not able to immediately verify the Russian media reports. It was not possible to determine how many people were aboard.
Some 600 fighters have been estimated to be inside the vast Soviet-era plant, including dozens of wounded. "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," the Azov Regiment said in a social media post.
It said the defenders of Mariupol, in the southeast, had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia's assault.
The steel works was the last Ukrainian-held bastion in the once prosperous port, now in ruins after months of Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people.
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Since February, Mariupol's devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine's ability to withstand Russia's invasion, and of Russia's willingness to destroy Ukrainian cities that hold out.
In a video accompanying the Azov Regiment statement, one of the unit's senior commanders, Denys Prokopenko, said: "The main thing is to realize all the risks, is there a plan B, are you fully committed to that plan which must allow for fulfilling the assigned tasks and preserve the lives and health of personnel?"
This is the highest level of overseeing troops. All the more so when your decision is endorsed by the highest military command."
Prokopenko did not spell out what action the defenders were taking. The video was released hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk.
Apart from the steelworks, Mariupol is entirely in Russian hands after a siege which left residents huddled in basements with no food and water and streets littered with dead bodies.
Moscow denies having targeted civilians. The United Nations and Red Cross both estimate thousands of civilians died, with the true toll still uncounted.
The last defenders, including many who were wounded, had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built to withstand nuclear war, deep beneath Azovstal, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe.
Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant earlier this month. "An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded," Russia's defense ministry said. "A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.
"Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told Ukrainian television: "Any information can harm the processes that are taking place … Inasmuch as the process is under way, we can't say what's happening right now."
Earlier, the wife of an Azov Battalion member had described conditions at the plant: "They are in hell. They receive new wounds every day. They are without legs or arms, exhausted, without medicines," Natalia Zaritskaya said.