The last members of the Ukrainian military’s Azov unit holed up in Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steelworks surrendered late on Friday, Russia’s defense ministry said, ending days of siege.
The entire territory of the factory complex in the port city of Mariupol has been liberated, Russia’s state-run broadcaster RT cited the ministry as saying.
It said more than 2,400 people who had been stuck in the complex for almost a month, including Ukrainian servicemen and “members of the neo-Nazi Azov unit”, laid down their arms and surrendered.
“The last group of 531 militants surrendered today,” the Russian military spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said in a statement, as reported by RT and other Russian media.
"The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces," the statement noted.
He added that a total of “2,439 Azov Nazis” and Ukrainian servicemen had laid down their arms since May 16 and that the entire complex was now under the control of Russian forces.
Hours before the announcement on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the last members of the Ukrainian forces trapped at the steelworks had been told by the country’s military to get out and save their lives.
"Today the boys received a clear signal from the military command that they can get out and save their lives," he told a Ukrainian television channel earlier on Friday.
Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko in a video posted on Telegram also said that the remaining Ukrainian soldiers in the blockaded steel plant had been asked to stop fighting.
“The higher military command has given the order to save the lives of the soldiers of our garrison and to stop defending the city,” he said, adding that there is an “ongoing process” to remove killed soldiers from the flashpoint industrial area.
Moscow has released no information about where the surrendered soldiers are being evacuated to, but Ukrainian authorities hope they can be released as part of the prisoner swap.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the soldiers would be treated "in line with the relevant international laws".
Russian lawmakers on Tuesday pushed plans to declare Azov regiment fighters "Nazi criminals" who must not be included in the prisoner swap with Ukraine.
The office of Russia's prosecutor general has asked the country's apex court to declare the unit a "terrorist organization"
The Azov regiment, set up as a volunteer militia in 2014, has had close ties to the far right.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have also launched a major offensive to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the southeastern province of Luhansk which Moscow proclaims as an independent state.
“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Sievierodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said on his Telegram channel.
“We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment,” he said.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has said the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic” would be over soon.
Zelensky has described the conditions in Donbas, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk province, as “hell” and said the region had been “completely destroyed” in the three-month-long war.
It is believed that control over Luhansk and Donetsk would allow Moscow to claim a victory in the war. It achieved a major step towards that goal this week, after seizing Mariupol, the main Donbas port.
Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.