Ukraine ‘doing everything possible’ for Mariupol fighters as Putin troops continue attacks

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Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said Kyiv is aware of how many soldiers were still at the plant, but warned that it was “sensitive information”. On Monday, 264 fighters, many badly wounded, were evacuated to areas controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

Another seven buses left the site on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

It added that the convoy eventually arrived at the village of Olenivka controlled by pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region.

Russian prosecutors claim they want to question all Ukrainian soldiers as part of an investigation into what Moscow describes as “Ukrainian regime crimes against Donbas civilians”.

Kyiv wants the troops, known as the last defenders of the southern city of Mariupol, to be exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.

Hundreds of Ukrainian troops have been trapped in the steelworks since advancing Russian troops encircled Mariupol in early March.

They include Marines the National Guard including the controversial Neo Nazi Azov Brigade, border guards and territorial defence units.

There are also a number of civilians with young children at the site.

Earlier this month a number of civilians were able to leave the steelworks for both Russian and Ukrainian held territory. 

The four mile Soviet built complex is a maze of tunnels designed to survive a nuclear war.

At a briefing on Tuesday in Kyiv, Ms Maliar refused to be drawn on how many people were still left in the plant.

She said: “We understand the scope of the rescue operation, but it is also sensitive information, and it will not be disclosed until the rescue operation is completed.”

She added that the fighters were “our heroes” and that a rescue operation was the only way to save them. 

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In a video address on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian military, intelligence and negotiating teams, along with the Red Cross and the UN, were involved in the evacuation operation.

He added: “Ukraine needs its heroes alive.”

However, he warned that the Ukrainian troops might not be freed straight away and that negotiations over their release would need “delicacy and time”.

Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko told the BBC it was vital that any deal struck with Russia, with the help of the Red Cross and the UN, went through and the soldiers were exchanged.

Without this she added “the fate of these very brave men will be absolutely unknown and will be in Russian hands, which is far from an ideal situation”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the steel plant would be treated “in line with the relevant international laws”.

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