Ukraine has confirmed that an operation is under way to rescue its troops — many of them wounded — from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol after nearly three months of heavy bombardment that have pulverised the strategic port city.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the nation in the early hours of Tuesday and confirmed the operation, which was agreed with Russian forces, was under way.

“I want to emphasise that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” Zelensky said. “To get the boys home, the work goes on, and it takes delicacy and time.”

The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement that the Mariupol garrison had “fulfilled its combat mission”.

“The Supreme Military Command has ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel,” the statement added, describing them as “heroes of our time”.

Combatants from the Azov battalion, a volunteer group now integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces, and marines had fiercely resisted Russia’s invading troops in the city for nearly three months, the statement said.

“Holding positions in Azovstal, they did not allow the enemy to transfer groups of up to 17 battalion tactical groups (about 20,000 personnel) to other areas,” the general staff statement added.

According to the general staff, 53 severely wounded servicemen were being transferred to a medical facility in the nearby Russian-occupied town of Novoazovsk. How they would be transferred to Ukrainian controlled regions was not immediately clear. Another 211 fighters were evacuated to another town from where they were to be swapped in a prisoner exchange, the general staff statement said.

“Measures to rescue defenders who remain on the territory of Azovstal continue,” the general staff statement added, signalling that not all Ukrainian fighters had been rescued in the overnight operation.

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