Ukraine's military says it's working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol, ceding control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.
The evacuation of hundreds of fighters, many wounded, to Russian-held towns, likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is in ruins after a Russian 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.
"The 'Mariupol' garrison has fulfilled its combat mission," the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces said on Monday.
"The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel ... Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time."
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said 53 injured troops from steelworks were taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, about 30 kilometres to the east, while another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
All of the evacuees would be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she said.
Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant. Ukraine's military said efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.
"We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys," Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an early-morning address. "There are severely wounded ones among them. They're receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive."
Moscow calls its nearly three-month-old invasion a "special military operation" to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.
Russia's invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and around Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.
On Monday, Ukraine's defence ministry said troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40km north of Kharkiv.
The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia's main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month yet achieving only small gains.
Russia has faced massive sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, but EU foreign ministers failed to pressure Hungary to lift its veto of a proposed oil embargo.
McDonald's Corp on Monday became one of the biggest global brands to exit Russia, laying out plans to sell all its restaurants after operating in the country for more than 30 years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join the NATO alliance.
"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.
The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia's security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.
Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an "aggressive" way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.
Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO's treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.
"We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said.
Australian Associated Press
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