Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday it aimed to evacuate its remaining soldiers from their last stronghold in Mariupol, as fighters that have held out for 82 days began to surrender, heralding the end of Europe’s bloodiest battle in decades.
Reuters saw buses leave the huge Azovstal steelworks overnight and five of them arrive in the Russian-held town of Novoazovsk.
In one, marked with the Latin letter ‘Z’ that has become the symbol of Russia’s assault, wounded men were lying on stretchers three bunks high.
One man was wheeled out, his head tightly wrapped in thick bandages.
Video released by the Russian ministry of defence showed fighters leaving the plant, some being carried on stretchers, others with their hands up to be searched by Russian troops.
Russia said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered”, including 51 severely wounded.
Ukraine said 264 soldiers, including 53 wounded, had left the metal plant, and efforts were under way to evacuate others still inside.
“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement.
“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel … Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time.”
The surrender appears to mark the end of the battle of Mariupol, where Ukraine believes tens of thousands of people were killed under months of Russian bombardment and siege.
The city now lies in ruins. Its complete capture is Russia’s biggest victory of the war, giving Moscow total control of the coast of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken stretch of eastern and southern Ukraine about the size of Greece.
But it comes as Russia’s campaign has faltered elsewhere, with its troops around the city of Kharkiv in the northeast lately retreating at the fastest pace since they were driven out of the north and the area around Kyiv at the end of March.
Authorities on both sides gave few clues about the ultimate fate of Mariupol’s last defenders, with Ukrainian officials discussing the prospect of some form of exchange for Russian prisoners but giving no details.
“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”