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Ukraine war: Azov Battalion evacuates dead after fighters stop defending Mariupol steel plant

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By AFP with Euronews
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Ukrainian servicemen in a bus after leaving Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant, near a penal colony in Olyonivka, in Donetsk People's Republic territory, Ukraine, May 20, 2022.
Ukrainian servicemen in a bus after leaving Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant, near a penal colony in Olyonivka, in Donetsk People's Republic territory, Ukraine, May 20, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

The Ukrainian Azov regiment, still entrenched in unknown numbers in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, said on Friday it was evacuating its dead after Kyiv ordered hundreds of its men to surrender to "save lives".

"The higher military command gave the order to save the lives of the soldiers of our garrison and to stop defending the city," confirmed regimental commander Denys Prokopenko in a video on Telegram, a large bandage on his right arm and a swollen left arm, from what appeared to be an underground room.

After the evacuation of civilians and then hundreds of de facto Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by the Russians, "the process continues" to evacuate the bodies of the killed soldiers, added the commander of this elite regiment founded by Ukrainian nationalists, which was defending Azovstal alongside a unit of marine fusiliers.

"I hope that soon the families and all of Ukraine will be able to bury their fighters with honours. Glory to Ukraine," he concluded.

The last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in this city, the huge metallurgical complex with its maze of underground galleries dug in the Soviet era was the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in this port city on the Sea of Azov, massively bombed by the Russians. The fierce defence of the site resulted in an unknown number of military casualties.

Earlier in the day, the Russian defence ministry, whose forces now hold the city, said 1,908 Ukrainian soldiers from Azovstal had "rendered themselves prisoner" since Monday.

Moscow released images showing cohorts of men in combat gear emerging from the steel plant, some on crutches or bandages, after a long battle that had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

According to Kyiv, the martyred city was 90% destroyed and at least 20,000 people died.

Kyiv has not spoken of surrender in Azovstal but of "rescuing our heroes" with international support, in the words of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday evening.

Ukraine wants to organise an exchange of prisoners of war but Russia has made it known, implicitly targeting the Azov regiment, that it considers some of them to be "neo-Nazi" fighters.

In a statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC recalled that the Geneva Convention required the belligerents to give it "full access" to prisoners of war "wherever they are held", including to inform the families, "many of whom still lack answers".