Hundreds of fighters evacuated from holdout Mariupol steel plant, Ukraine says

Ukraine's military said on Tuesday it was working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol, appearing to cede control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.

Sweden says it will pursue NATO membership, following similar push by neighbouring Finland

A wounded Ukrainian soldier from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol is transported on a stretcher out of a bus, which arrived under escort of pro-Russian troops, in Novoazovsk, Ukraine, on Monday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Latest political and business developments

  • EU agrees to give Ukraine another 500 million euros for arms purchases.

  • Sweden to pursue NATO membership after holding parliamentary debate.

  • Joly says Canada keen to ratify Swedish, Finnish membership as soon as possible.

  • McDonald's to pull out of Russia, where it has 850 locations.

Updates from the ground on Day 82 of the war

  • Ukrainian defenders begin evacuating from Mariupol steel plant.

  • Explosions heard in Lviv early Tuesday.

  • 20 civilians killed in shelling in Luhansk, Donetsk regions, Ukrainian military says.

  • Ukraine says it stopped Russian advances in Donetsk and Izyum.

Ukraine's military said on Tuesday it was working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in Mariupol, appearing to cede control of the besieged port city to Russia after months of bombardment.

The evacuation likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.

With the rest of Mariupol firmly in Russian hands, hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians had holed up beneath the city's Azovstal steelworks. Civilians inside were evacuated in recent weeks, and more than 260 troops, some of them wounded, left the plant for Russian-controlled areas late on Monday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the evacuation to separatist-controlled territory was done to save the lives of the fighters who endured weeks of Russian assaults in the maze of underground passages below the hulking steel mill. He said the "heavily wounded" were getting medical help.

"Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes to be alive. It's our principle," he said.

A convoy of pro-Russian troops escorts buses with Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal steel mill. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 seriously wounded fighters were taken from the plant to a hospital in Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol. An additional 211 fighters were taken to Olenivka through a humanitarian corridor.

She said an exchange would be worked out for their return home, while efforts go on to rescue the remaining fighters inside.

"The work to bring the guys home continues, and it requires delicacy and time," Zelensky said.

Before Monday's evacuations began, the Russian Defence Ministry announced an agreement for the wounded to leave the mill for treatment in a town held by pro-Moscow separatists. There was no immediate word on whether the wounded would be considered prisoners of war.

A bus carrying service members of Ukrainian forces from the steel plant drives away under escort of pro-Russian troops in Mariupol on Monday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

After nightfall Monday, several buses pulled away from the steel mill accompanied by Russian military vehicles. Maliar later confirmed that the evacuation had taken place.

"Thanks to the defenders of Mariupol, Ukraine gained critically important time to form reserves and regroup forces and receive help from partners," she said. "And they fulfilled all their tasks. But it is impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means."

The commander of the Azov Regiment, which led the defence of the plant, said in a prerecorded video message released Monday that the evacuation marked the end of the regiment's mission.

"Absolutely safe plans and operations don't exist during war," Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko said, adding that all risks were considered and part of the plan included saving "as many lives of personnel as possible."

Explosions in Lviv

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv was rocked by loud explosions early Tuesday. Witnesses counted at least eight blasts accompanied by distant booms, and the smell of burning was apparent sometime later. An Associated Press team in Lviv, which was under an overnight curfew, said the sky west of the city was lit up by an orange glow.

The chairman of the Lviv Regional Military Administration said the Russians fired on military infrastructure in the nearby Yavoriv district. The city of Yavoriv is about 15 kilometres from the Polish border.

Sweden to pursue NATO membership

Meanwhile, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson announced Monday that Sweden will join Finland in seeking NATO membership in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The historic shift, which comes after more than 200 years of military nonalignment in the Nordic country, is likely to upset the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Andersson said Sweden would refuse nuclear weapons or permanent NATO bases on its soil — similar conditions as neighbouring Norway and Denmark insisted on when the alliance was formed after the Second World War.

Sweden's Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson speaks at a news conference in Stockholm on Monday. Sweden's Social Democrats reversed their longstanding position on joining NATO. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/The Associated Press)

Finland announced Sunday that it was seeking to join the alliance, saying Russia's invasion of Ukraine nearly three months ago had changed Europe's security landscape. Several hours later, Sweden's governing party endorsed a bid for membership, which could lead to an application in days.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada is in favour of a "quick accession" for both countries ahead of meeting in Brussels with the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell.

"Our goal is to be among the first countries to be able to ratify the accession of Sweden and Finland," said Joly. That process in the past has taken eight months to a year.

Those moves would be a serious blow to Putin, who has called NATO's post-Cold War expansion in Eastern Europe a threat and cited it as a reason for attacking Ukraine. NATO says it is a purely defensive alliance.

WATCH | Former Finnish PM on the push to join NATO:

Countries nearby worry they could be next after Russia invaded Ukraine. Finland shares a 1,340-kilometre land border and the Gulf of Finland with Russia.

Putin warned the West on Monday that Russia would respond if NATO began to bolster the military infrastructure of Sweden and Finland, but did not issue any threats to the two countries themselves.

"As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states — none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries," Putin said.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member, ratcheted up his objection to Sweden and Finland joining. At a joint news conference with the visiting Algerian president, he accused the countries of failing to take a "clear" stance against Kurdish militants and other groups that Ankara considers terrorists, and of imposing military sanctions on Turkey.

All 30 current NATO members must agree to let the Nordic neighbours join.

Village-by-village battles

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with top diplomats from the alliance in Berlin, said the war "is not going as Moscow had planned."

"Ukraine can win this war," he said, adding that NATO must continue to offer military support to Kyiv.

On the ground, Russia inflicted damage but failed to make significant territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, the focus of its war effort since its forces failed to seize the capital, Kyiv.

Russian and Ukrainian fighters are battling village-by-village for Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas. Ukrainian soldiers have fought Moscow-backed separatists there for eight years.

Soldiers of the Kraken Ukrainian special forces unit talk to a man at a destroyed bridge on the road near the village of Rus'ka Lozova, north of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, a Ukrainian battalion in the Kharkiv region reached the Russian border and made a victorious video there addressed to Zelensky. The video posted on Facebook by Ukraine's Ministry of Defence shows a dozen fighters around a post covered with blue and yellow, Ukraine's colours.

One said the unit went "to the dividing line with the Russian Federation, the occupying country. Mr. President, we have reached it. We are here."

Other fighters made victory signs and raised their fists.

Zelensky thanked the soldiers in a video message on Monday. "I'm very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family," he said. "I'm very grateful to all the fighters like you."

20 civilians killed in east, Ukraine says

Determining a full picture of the fighting, especially the unfolding battle in the east, is difficult. Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around, and both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed separatists fighting in the east have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

Ukraine's Joint Forces Task Force said late on Monday that 20 civilians, including a child, were killed by Russian shelling in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The military task force said in a statement on its Facebook page that 25 communities in the regions were fired at, with 42 residential buildings and a school among locations hit.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the report, and there was no immediate response from Russia.

The Ukrainian military said it stopped a renewed Russian offensive in the Donetsk area of the Donbas. It also blew up two railway bridges that had been seized by Russian forces in the eastern region of Luhansk, Ukraine's Special Operations Command said Sunday. The aim was to prevent Russia from bringing in more troops to attack the towns of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk.

Roman Pryhodchenko cries inside his house damaged by multiple shelling in Kharkiv, on Sunday. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

The Ukrainian claims could not be independently verified, but Western officials also painted a sombre picture for Russia.

Russian troops were retreating from around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city and a key military objective earlier in the war. After weeks of bombardment and continuing strikes around the wider Kharkiv region, the regional governor said there had been no shelling in the city for several days.

Despite the continuing threat of missile attacks, many people were returning home to Kharkiv and other cities around Ukraine, Maliar said.

Refugees were returning not just because of optimism that the war might ebb.

"Living somewhere just like that, not working, paying for housing, eating ... they are forced to return for financial reasons," Maliar said in remarks carried by the RBK-Ukraine news agency.

WATCH | Destruction around Kharkiv: 

Ukrainians confront war’s aftermath near Kharkiv

1 month ago
Duration 2:47
The remnants of war are still visible in villages around Kharkiv, where Russian troops have retreated, leaving behind destruction in the streets and fear in the minds of residents.

No agreement on oil embargo

EU foreign ministers failed on Monday in their effort to pressure Hungary to lift its veto of a proposed oil embargo on Russia, with Lithuania saying the bloc was being "held hostage by one member state."

The ban on crude imports proposed by the European Commission in early May would be its harshest sanction yet in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and includes carve-outs for EU states most dependent on Russian oil. Germany, the EU's biggest economy and a major buyer of Russian energy, said it wanted a deal to authorize the oil embargo, which it suggested could last for years.

Crosses, floral tributes and photographs of the victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha mark the graves of a cemetery in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Monday. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

"Unhappily, it has not been possible to reach an agreement today," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters, saying Hungary set out its argument based on economic, not political, concerns. Ambassadors are now charged to negotiate an agreement.

Borrell said foreign ministers had decided, however, to provide an additional 500 million euros for arms purchases in support of Kyiv, taking the total sum of money the EU has earmarked for that purpose to 2 billion euros.

Meanwhile, McDonald's said Monday that it has started the process of selling its Russian business, which includes 850 restaurants that employ 62,000 people, making it the latest major Western corporation to exit Russia since it invaded Ukraine in February.

And Renault said it was selling its Russian branch to Moscow City and its 67 per cent stake in Russian company Avtovaz to a local state-owned institute.

The CEO of Renault Group, Luca de Meo, called it "a difficult but necessary decision" and didn't rule out returning to the country, "in the future, in a different context."

A boy walks past a 'No war!' sign stuck to a window of a McDonald's restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 15. McDonald's announced it would temporarily close locations in Russia in February, but said Monday it is closing up shop in the country for good. (The Associated Press)

With files from The Associated Press