Ukraine ordered soldiers defending the last pocket of Mariupol to stop fighting, effectively ceding control of the southeastern port city to Russia after a bloody, monthslong struggle that came to signify the brutality of the Kremlin’s war and the fortitude of Kyiv’s resistance.
Ukraine said its focus was now on evacuating the troops from the Azovstal steel plant, where they have been holed up under fire. The decision represents an important but costly victory for Moscow as its military offensive struggles and its geopolitical position is weakened further by Sweden's and Finland's bids to join NATO.
Mariupol, once home to 400,000 people, is just 30 miles from the Russian border, and it was an early target for the invasion. But Ukrainian troops held out, and much of the strategic city now lies in ruins after relentless Russian bombardment and a siege that Kyiv says has killed tens of thousands of people.
Russian forces had encircled the hulking Azovstal steelworks, where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had defied an ultimatum to surrender and mounted a last-ditch defense for more than two months that held up Russia's eastern offensive.
The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said late Monday that the garrison had “fulfilled its combat mission” and that its focus would be on saving the soldiers' lives rather than fighting.
More than 260 soldiers had been evacuated from the steel mill, 50 of whom were seriously wounded, and taken to Russian-controlled territory, it said. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereschuk, said on the messaging app Telegram that the aim is to exchange them for Russian prisoners of war.
Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in the nearby town of Novoazovsk late Monday. In one, marked with a Z like many Russian military vehicles, men were stacked on stretchers on three levels. One man was wheeled out, his head wrapped in bandages.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message late Monday that it was "a difficult day" but, "like all others, is aimed precisely at protecting our country and our people."
"Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive," he added.
The Ukrainian military statement said the soldiers' stand had not been in vain, as they were able to slow the progress of 20,000 Russian troops and prevent the rapid capture of Zaporizhzhia, a city to the northwest.
Holding up Russian troops around Mariupol "gave us the opportunity to prepare and create defensive lines" and "give a decent rebuff to the aggressor," it said, giving the Ukrainian military "critical time to form reserves, regroup forces, and receive assistance from partners."
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its daily briefing Tuesday that the Ukrainian troops at the steel mill had "laid down their arms and surrendered."
Capturing Mariupol is key, because it would allow Russian forces in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia invaded and annexed in 2014, to link up with those in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has refocused its efforts.
Most military experts and officials in the West say the Russian invasion has been botched. President Vladimir Putin withdrew his forces from an advance on Kyiv after they suffered heavy losses, and he is now focusing on areas around the pro-Russian separatist regions in the east of the country.
Ukraine's apparent surrender brings to an end a siege that has lasted for most of Russia's eight-week invasion. Residents whose homes are not in ruins have been forced to live without electricity, heat, water, food or medical supplies.
Ukrainian officials said tens of thousands of people were likely to have been killed during the siege. NBC News has not verified the number of deaths.
The city's leaders pleaded for aid, hardly any of which was able to make it through. With bodies piling up in the streets, officials have turned to burying the dead in mass graves.
An investigation by The Associated Press found evidence that a Russian strike on a theater in the city in March killed close to 600 people — which would make it the single deadliest attack of the war.
Another Russian strike, on a children’s and maternity hospital, prompted global outrage after four people, including a pregnant woman and her unborn child, were killed.
Mayor Vadym Boichenko accused Russia of bringing in mobile crematoriums “to get rid of evidence of war crimes.” NBC News was not able to independently confirm the claim.
Earlier this month, the civilians who had sheltered inside the steel plant for weeks alongside the fighters were evacuated under a cease-fire agreement.
Some of those who made it out told NBC News about the desperate situation inside.
“We expected to die at any minute,” Natalya, who declined to give her last name, said after she escaped to Zaporizhzhia. “We were trying to joke, to talk. This helped us get through it.”