Russia plans to annex much of eastern Ukraine later this month, a senior US official has warned, and the Mariupol steel mill, which is the city’s last stronghold of resistance, came under renewed assault a day after the first evacuation of civilians from the factory.
Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said on Monday that the United States believed the Kremlin would also recognize the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. None of those decisions would be recognized by the United States or its allies, he said.
Russia plans to hold mock referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that would “attempt to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy” and tie the entities to Russia, Carpenter said. He also said there were signs that Russia would hold an independence vote in Kherson.
Mayors and local lawmakers have been kidnapped, internet and cellphone services have been cut and a Russian school curriculum will soon be imposed, Carpenter said. The Ukrainian government claims that Russia has introduced its ruble as a currency there.
More than 100 civilians evacuated from steelworks
More than 100 people, including elderly women and mothers with young children, left the rubble-strewn Azovstal steelworks on Sunday and set off in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers to the northwest. Mariupol deputy mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress.
Authorities gave no explanation for the delay.
At least some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The Russian military said some opted to stay in breakaway areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin denied.
Russian bombardment of the sprawling factory by air, tank and boat resumed after the partial evacuation, the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which is helping to defend the factory, said on the Telegram messaging app.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway between Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on the evacuation of more people.
Much of Mariupol is in rubble
Evacuating the steel plant, if successful, would be a rare step forward in mitigating the human cost of the nearly 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other locations have failed, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of firing and shelling along agreed evacuation routes.
Before the weekend evacuation, overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross, around 1,000 civilians were in the factory, along with around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders who refused Russian demands to surrender.
Up to 100,000 people in total could still be in Mariupol, which had a population of over 400,000 before the war. Russian forces reduced much of the city to rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.
WATCH | EU holds crisis talks on Russian oil ban, US pledges further support to Ukraine:
Some residents of Mariupol left alone, often in damaged private cars.
As sunset approached, Yaroslav Dmytryshyn, a resident of Mariupol, drove to a reception center in Zaporizhzhia in a car with a backseat full of young people and two signs taped to the rear window: “Children” and “Little ones”.
“I can’t believe we survived,” he said, looking worn but in good spirits after two days on the road.
“There is no Mariupol,” he said. “Someone has to rebuild it, and it will take millions of tons of gold.” He said they lived just across the railroad from the steel mill. “Ruined,” he said. “The factory has completely disappeared.”
“We could see the rockets flying”
Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the ceasefire to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, said she could see the steelworks from her window when she dared to look.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Greek state television that civilians left at the steelworks were afraid to board the buses, fearing they would be taken to Russia. He said the UN had assured him that they could go to areas controlled by his government.
Mariupol is in the Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, and is key to the Russian countryside to the east. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere.
More than a million people, including nearly 200,000 children, have been taken from Ukraine to Russia, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday, according to state news agency TASS.
Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said that number included 11,550 people, including 1,847 children, in the past 24 hours, “without the involvement of the Ukrainian authorities”.
220 children killed, according to Zelensky
These civilians “were evacuated to the territory of the Russian Federation from the dangerous regions of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”, and other parts of Ukraine, according to the report. No details were provided.
Zelensky said Monday that at least 220 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russian military since the war began in late February and that 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged.
Failing to capture the capital Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused on Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russia said it struck dozens of military targets in the area, including troop and arms concentrations and an ammunition dump near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region west of Donbass.
Ukrainian and Western officials say troops in Moscow are firing indiscriminately, killing many civilians while advancing only slowly.
The governor of the Odessa region along the Black Sea coast, Maksym Marchenko, said on Telegram that a Russian missile strike on Monday left people dead and injured. He gave no details. Zelensky said the attack destroyed a dormitory and killed a 14-year-old boy.
Helicopters near the border
Ukraine said Russia also rammed a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odessa. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes and its destruction would have cut off a supply route for weapons and other goods from neighboring Romania.
However, a satellite image captured by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the bridge was still standing as of noon Monday.
WATCH | Ukrainian civilians reach the shelter of the bombed Mariupol steel plant:
Another image, taken on Monday, showed nearly 50 Russian military helicopters at Stary Oskol, a Russian base close to the Ukrainian border and some 175 kilometers northeast of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
The helicopters were parked on the tarmac, runway and grass of the otherwise civilian airport, with military equipment nearby.
During the war in Ukraine, Russia flew military attack helicopters low to the ground in an attempt to avoid anti-aircraft missiles.