Ukraine’s defence ministry has confirmed that an operation to evacuate fighters from the besieged Azovstal steelworks is under way.
Some 53 troops are being taken to hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, according to Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar.
Another 264 wounded Ukrainian fighters have been taken to Olenivka, in Donetsk, through humanitarian corridors, she said.
The politician said the newly freed troops were exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.
‘We are working to save people who are still in Azovstal,’ she said, without saying how many people remained.
The sprawling plant in Mariupol has been the last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in the occupied port city for over two months.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm for the fate of hundreds of soldiers in the plant, many of whom are thought to be injured, as they face dire conditions and relentless shelling.
News of the rescue mission comes after Ukraine accused Russia of hitting the plant with white phosphorous bombs.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday night: ‘Thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military – the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, as well as the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys.
‘I want to emphasise that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words.’
Five buses were seen leaving the plant on Monday night with soldiers inside.
At one point it was thought there were a few thousand Ukrainian troops in the steel works, along with a few hundred civilians.
The Azov Regiment said that its troops in Mariupol had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to fight Russian forces and secure Western weapons.
For much of that time, the trapped soldiers and civilians faced severe shortages of food, water, electricity, and medicine.
Ukraine says that tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mariupol, much of which lies in ruins following indiscriminate Russian bombing.
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