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Ukraine troops holed up in Mariupol finally lay down arms, evacuated to Russian-controlled towns

Pictures have emerged purportedly showing injured Ukrainian soldiers arriving in Novoazovsk, a town held by Russian-backed rebels.

Ukraine has confirmed that hundreds of its troops trapped for over two months in Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks have been evacuated to Russian-controlled territory.  

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said 53 badly wounded soldiers were taken to the town of Novoazovsk, held by Russian-backed rebels, according to a BBC report. 

She said another 211 were evacuated using a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka, another town under Russian control.  The Azov regiment, in a social media post, appeared to confirm that its fighters had agreed to lay down their arms.

The group's commander, Lt Col Denis Prokopenko said his priority was saving "as many lives of personnel as possible".

The minister disclosed that the Ukrainian troops would be exchanged for captured Russian soldiers. Russia earlier said a deal had been reached to evacuate the injured troops. About a dozen buses carrying Ukrainian fighters who were holed up beneath the besieged plant were seen leaving the huge industrial site in the southern port city on Monday evening, Reuters news agency reported. 

Russian state-run media carried footage of the injured Ukrainiansoldiers being evacuated from Azovstal.

In his video address after midnight local time on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukrainian military, intelligence and negotiating teams, as well as the Red Cross and the UN were involved in the evacuation operation. "Ukraine needs its heroes alive," BBC cited him as saying.

However, he cautioned that the Ukrainian troops may not be freed immediately and warned that negotiations over their release will require "delicacy and time". Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers – the Azov regiment, the National Guard, police and territorial defence units – as well as a number of civilians have been holed up at the site since advancing Russian troops besieged Mariupol. The sprawling four-square mile Azovstal complex is a maze of tunnels designed to survive a nuclear war.

Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin called off a planned assault on the site at the last minute and opted for a tightening the siege on the steel plant so that no one could escape.

Some women and children were evacuated recently after Russia provided a safe corridor at the intervention of the UN and International Red Cross.

Ukraine had asked its soldiers not to lay down their arms and stay holed up at the site despite the fact that they were running out of both food and ammunition.

Ms Maliar said Ukraine's military, intelligence, National Guard and Border Service were "carrying out joint efforts to save" those left behind. She also praised the actions of the plant's defenders, who she said had "fully accomplished all missions assigned by the command". But she noted that their position had become untenable after it became "impossible to unblock Azovstal by military means".

In a message posted to Facebook on Monday night, Ukraine's General Staff called the troops "heroes of our time" and said their efforts had helped Kyiv organise the defence of its southern flank.