Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers from their last redoubt in the ruined city of Mariupol, as Kyiv congratulated its forces on reaching a stretch of their country’s eastern border after driving Moscow’s troops away from the key city of Kharkiv.
Fierce artillery exchanges continued on Monday to the south of Kharkiv in the area known as Donbas, where Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said at least 10 people were killed in Russian shelling of the strategic city of Severodonetsk.
Most civilians were evacuated from the vast Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol last week, but up to 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers are believed still to be in the complex, including several hundred who are injured after 11 weeks of intense battles for the Azov Sea port.
Relatives of servicemen in Azovstal have appealed to the leaders of Turkey and China to intercede on their behalf with Russian president Vladimir Putin and secure their release from the factory in the otherwise occupied city.
“On May 16th, as a result of negotiations with representatives of Ukrainian military personnel blocked on the territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol, an agreement was reached on the removal of the wounded,” the Russian defence ministry said.
“Now a temporary ceasefire has been introduced in the area of the plant and a humanitarian corridor has been opened, through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are delivered to a medical facility in Novoazovsk … to provide them with all necessary assistance.”
Ukraine did not immediately comment on the Russian announcement, and it is not clear whether Kyiv or its soldiers in Azovstal would agree to be transferred to Novoazovsk, a town close to Mariupol that since 2014 has been held by Moscow-led separatist militia.
There are also fears in Ukraine that wounded troops could be used for propaganda purposes by Moscow, because many are from the Azov regiment that grew out of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement – and Russia now claims to be “denazifying” its neighbour, a pro-western democracy where far-right political parties have little public support.
The stubborn defence of Azovstal has helped Ukraine tie up Russian troops in Mariupol and commit more of its own forces to resisting the assault on Donbas and on Kharkiv, the country’s second city, which was under regular artillery fire for 11 weeks.
In a video posted on social media on Monday, a group of Ukrainian soldiers erected a border post and one said they had reached the Russian frontier, which in some areas is only 35km from Kharkiv: “We got here, Mr President. We are here. Border guards are with us.”
“Guys … thank you very much from all Ukrainians, from everyone, from myself and my family,” Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy replied. “My gratitude is without borders! I wish you all good health, take care of yourself. Thank you, to you and to your parents … and to all fighters like you.”
Russia says that another of its reasons for launching an all-out invasion of Ukraine is to stop it joining Nato or hosting troops or weapons of the alliance.
However, Mr Putin said on Monday that the Kremlin had “no problem” with the plans of Sweden and Finland to join the bloc.
“But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response,” he added. “What that will be – we will see what threats are created for us.”
Ukraine’s Joint Forces Task Force said late on Monday that 20 civilians, including a child, were killed in Russian shelling in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The military task force said in a statement on its Facebook page that 25 communities in the regions were fired at, with 42 residential buildings and a school among locations hit.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the report.
There was no immediate response from Russia to the report. – Additional reporting Reuters