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MARIUPOL, (Ukraine): Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters surrendered to an uncertain fate on Tuesday after weeks holed up in the bunkers and tunnels below Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works as the most devastating siege of Russia’s war in Ukraine drew to a close.

Russian forces pummelled Mariupol, a major port on the Sea of Azov between Russia and Crimea, with artillery for weeks. After the urban warfare that followed, the city is a wasteland.

Civilians and Ukrainian fighters had hunkered down in Azovstal, a vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a maze of bunkers and tunnels to withstand nuclear attack.

Russia’s defence ministry said 265 fighters had surrendered, including 51 who were seriously wounded and would be treated at Novoazovsk in the Russian-backed breakaway Donetsk region. Five buses took wounded fighters there early on Tuesday, and in the evening a Reuters witness saw seven more, escorted by armoured vehicles. They brought other Azovstal fighters to a newly reopened prison in Olenivka near the regional capital Donetsk.

The occupants were not visibly wounded. One bore a prominent tattoo on his neck featuring a Ukrainian national trident symbol.

Britain says Russia continued ground assault on Azovstal steel plant for second day

Ukraine’s military command had said in the early hours that it was ending the mission to defend the plant, led by the Azov Regiment, which had previously insisted it would not surrender and appealed to Kyiv to organise an extraction.

“Because Mariupol drew in the Russian Federation’s forces for 82 days, the operation to seize the east and south (of Ukraine) was held up. It changed the course of the war,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said.

It was unclear what would happen to the fighters. Moscow has depicted the Azov Regiment as one of the main perpetrators of the alleged radical anti-Russian nationalism or even Nazism from which it says it needs to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speakers.

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