Ukraine’s deputy defense minister has expressed hope that the 264 Ukrainian fighters evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol will be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war.

Hanna Malyar’s comment at a briefing came after Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the evacuated soldiers “criminals” who must be “brought to justice.” Volodin said the Azovstal fighters should be excluded from any future exchanges, according to Interfax.

Malyar said Volodin’s comments were a political statement “conceived as internal propaganda.” She said that from Ukraine’s perspective both the operation to evacuate more soldiers from the steelworks and the process of negotiating the fate of those already out are ongoing.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said earlier that the Ukrainian fighters — including 53 who were “seriously wounded” — were ferried out of the plant on May 16 and taken to Russia-controlled territory and that efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said 256 Ukrainian fighters had “laid down their arms and surrendered,” including 51 gravely wounded.

Malyar said the badly wounded soldiers were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, while another 211 were evacuated through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Olenivka. Both areas are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.

Months of Russian bombardment reduced Mariupol to rubble and killed thousands of civilians before Ukraine ceded control of the strategic Sea of Azov port, where hundreds of troops and civilians had been holed up for weeks in underground bunkers in the sprawling Azovstal industrial complex.

While Russia called it a surrender, Ukraine said the plant’s garrison had successfully completed its mission to tie down Russian forces and called the defenders heroes.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement on May 17.

“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,” the statement added.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on May 16 that Ukrainian military and intelligence negotiators as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations orchestrated the evacuation.

“Ukraine needs its heroes alive,” Zelenskiy said.

However, he warned that the Ukrainian fighters may not be freed immediately, adding that negotiations over their release will require “delicacy and time.”