Azovstal defenders appear to signal end of siege

Ukraine wary of Belarusian troops on its border * Russia continues to consolidate control of Kherson and Mariupol

 Smoke rises above a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 25, 2022. (photo credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
Smoke rises above a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 25, 2022.
(photo credit: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Azovstal evacuation

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 indication that the long siege there was coming to an end.

The fighting at Azovstal in ruined Mariupol has symbolized Ukrainian resistance throughout Russia's nearly three-month-old invasion. Most civilians who had sought shelter at the vast Soviet-era plant were evacuated earlier this month.

"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.

In an accompanying video, 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.

Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians died in Mariupol during months of siege by Russian forces who destroyed the Sea of Azov port, a city of around 400,000 people. The last defenders, including many who were wounded, had been holding out for weeks in bunkers beneath Azovstal, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe.

"An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded," Russia's defense ministry said in a statement.

"A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk."

Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar earlier told Ukrainian television: "Any information can harm the processes that are taking place ... Inasmuch as the process is underway, we can't say what's happening right now."

Civilian casualties 

Nine civilians were killed by Russian attacks on Monday in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region, the region's governor said.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, in a post on the Telegram messaging app, said nine residents were killed and six injured.

At least 10 civilians were killed by Russian shelling of the city of Sievierodonetsk in eastern Ukraine on Monday, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, had said earlier on Monday that heavy shelling had caused fires in residential areas.

Defense of Kharkiv

Reuters could not immediately verify Ukraine's battlefield account and it was not clear how many troops had reached the Russian border and where.

If confirmed, it would suggest a Ukrainian counter-offensive is having increasing success in pushing back Russian forces in the northeast after Western military agencies said Moscow's offensive in the Donbas region had stalled.

On Monday, Ukrainian spokesman for General Staff of the Armed Forces Oleksandr Shtupun said that Russia was concentrating on preventing the Ukrainian military from reaching the border.  

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said in a Facebook post that the 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of Ukraine's armed forces had reached the border with Russia, adding: "Together to victory!"

Kharkiv region governor Oleh Sinegubov wrote on the Telegram messaging app that troops of the 227th Battalion had restored a sign on the state border.

"We thank everyone who, risking their lives, liberates Ukraine from Russian invaders," Sinegubov said.

Russian advance

Shtupun warned that Russia was preparing for an offensive from the area of Izyum, based on the concentration of units there.

In Mariupol, "the main efforts of the occupiers focused on the blocking and damaging of our units in the area of ​​the Azovstal plant," said Shtupun. He said the Russians continued to use artillery barrages and airstrikes to pummel the area.
In Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russia during the war, Russia claims to have achieved full control.
"The Kherson region is 100% under the protection and guard of the troops of the Russian Federation," deputy head of the military-civilian administration of the region Kirill Stremousov told Russian state media outlet TASS. However, he said that the city was still in range of Ukrainian artillery.

Russia on Monday said its forces had shot down three Ukrainian fighter jets, one near Snake Island in the Black Sea and the others in the Mykolaiv and Kharkiv regions, while its missiles continued to pound targets in the east of the country.

Russia's defense ministry said its forces shot down Su-25 aircraft near the settlements of Yevhenivka in the Mykolaiv region and Velyka Komyshuvakha in Kharkiv, and a Su-24 near Snake Island, which achieved worldwide fame in the conflict's first hours when Ukrainian border guards stationed there rejected a Russian warship's demand for their surrender.

Belarus on the border

Belarus deployed forces on its border with Ukraine earlier in the month, and have since been watched by Ukrainian forces with wary eyes.

"The presence of Belarusian forces near the border will likely fix Ukrainian troops, so they cannot deploy in support of operations in the Donbas," The UK Defense Ministry said in a Monday morning intelligence briefing. "Despite early speculation, to date Belarusian forces have not been directly involved in the conflict."
The Ukrainian military said on Monday that it had identified up to seven battalions stationed on the border. The Ukrainian military is monitoring the contingents.

"Belarusian territory was used as a staging post for Russia’s initial advance on Kyiv and Chernihiv. Russia has also launched air sorties and missile strikes from Belarus," wrote the UK Defense Ministry.  "Belarusian President Lukashenko is likely balancing support for Russia’s invasion with a desire to avoid direct military participation with the risk of Western sanctions, Ukrainian retaliation and possible dissatisfaction in the Belarusian military."