Ukrainian civilians locked in a steel mill in Mariupol besieged by Russian forces for nearly two months began evacuating over the weekend and people sheltering elsewhere in the city were to leave on Monday, local officials said.
Video uploaded by Ukrainian forces on Sunday showed elderly women and mothers with young children climbing a steep pile of rubble from the sprawling Azovstal steelworks and eventually boarding a bus.
More than 100 civilians were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday.
“Today, for the first time since all the days of the war, this vital (humanitarian) corridor started to function,” Zelensky said in a pre-recorded address posted on his Telegram messaging channel.
There were concerns for the safety of the evacuees. People fleeing areas occupied by Russia in the past have said their vehicles have come under fire, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of bombing agreed evacuation routes.
A Ukrainian steelworks defender has urged groups like the UN and the Red Cross to ensure the safety of evacuees. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment, told The Associated Press in an interview that there should be guarantees from “a third party – politicians, world leaders – who will cooperate to negotiate with the Russians for us extract from here”.
Another of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant on Sunday as soon as civilians were evacuated.
Denys Shlega, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 12th Operational Brigade, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that several hundred civilians are still trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “many” corpses.
“Several dozen young children are still in the bunkers under the factory,” Shlega said.
Wounded trapped in a steelworks
Up to 100,000 people could still be in Mariupol, including around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters under the sprawling Soviet-era steelworks – the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has seen some of the worst suffering. A Russian airstrike hit a maternity ward in the first weeks of the war and hundreds of people were reportedly killed when a theater was bombed.
The city is a key target due to its strategic location near the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Palamar, the Ukrainian commander, told the AP on Sunday that it was difficult to reach some of the injured at the steelworks.
“There is rubble. We don’t have special equipment. It’s difficult for soldiers to pick up slabs weighing tons with just their arms,” he said. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside destroyed buildings.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said civilians arriving in Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, would receive immediate support, including psychological services. A team from Doctors Without Borders was waiting for the UN convoy at a reception center for displaced people in the city.
Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians.
“We don’t know why they are not taken away, and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not discussed,” he said in a video released on the regiment’s Telegram channel on Saturday.
Along with his Azov regiment, Palamar said, marines, police, border guards, coast guards and are defending the plant. The bodies of dead Ukrainian fighters remain inside the factory, he said, “because we believe we can move them to the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. We must do everything to bury the heroes with the honors”.
Shelling Hits Residential Areas: Zelensky
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. lawmakers visited Zelensky on Saturday to show U.S. support.
In his late-night address on Sunday, Zelensky accused Moscow of waging “a war of extermination”, saying Russian shelling hit food, grain and fertilizer warehouses, as well as residential areas in Kharkiv, Donbass and other regions.
More than 350,000 people have been evacuated from combat zones through humanitarian corridors previously agreed with Moscow, he said, adding that “the organization of humanitarian corridors is one of the elements of the negotiation process which is In progress”.
In Zaporizhzhia, residents ignored the air raid sirens to visit cemeteries on Sunday, the Orthodox Christian Day of the Dead.
“If our dead could stand up and see this they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they are worse than the Germans,'” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with her family at a table picnic among the graves. “All of our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize parts of southern and eastern Ukraine after failing to capture the capital, kyiv. Ukrainian forces are carrying out their offensive village by village as civilians flee airstrikes and artillery fire.
Ukrainian intelligence officials have accused Russian forces of seizing medical facilities to treat wounded Russian soldiers in several occupied towns and destroying medical infrastructure.
Russia stuck in the East, analysts say
A full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is difficult to grasp. The fighting makes travel for journalists dangerous, and both sides have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts have suggested that the Russian offensive is progressing more slowly than expected. So far, Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists appear to have made only minor gains since the eastern offensive began last month.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a daily briefing on Monday that it estimated more than a quarter of all troops deployed by Russia in Ukraine to be “combat ineffective”. This phrase refers to an army’s ability to wage war, which is affected by the loss of soldiers to injury and death and by the damage or destruction of equipment.
The British military believes Russia has committed more than 120 so-called “battalion battle groups” to the war since February, representing 65% of Moscow’s entire combat strength.
Some of Russia’s most elite forces “have suffered the highest levels of attrition,” the ministry said in its Twitter briefing. “It will probably take years for Russia to rebuild these forces.”
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid flowed into Ukraine during the war, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine still needs massive support. With plenty of firepower still in reserve, the Russian offensive could intensify. Overall, the Russian military has around 900,000 active duty personnel, as well as a much larger air force and navy.
Meanwhile, recent weeks have seen a number of fires and explosions in Russian regions near the border. On Sunday, an explosive device damaged a railway bridge in the Kursk region, which borders Ukraine, and a criminal investigation was opened, the region’s government reported.