Ukraine said only 50 civilians were evacuated from a bombed steel plant in the city of Mariupol on Friday, accusing Russia of breaching a truce meant to allow all those trapped under the plant to leave after weeks of seat.
Mariupol suffered the most destructive bombardment of the 10-week war, and the sprawling Soviet-era Azovstal factory is the last part of the city, a strategic southern port on the Sea of Azov, still hands of Ukrainian fighters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late-night video address that Ukraine was working on a diplomatic effort to rescue defenders barricaded inside the steel mill. “It’s about influential intermediaries, influential states,” he said, without giving further details.
Zelensky has previously described Russia’s blockade of Mariupol as torture and said that if Russia killed civilians or soldiers who might otherwise be freed, his government could no longer hold peace talks with Moscow.
The UN-led evacuation of some of the hundreds of civilians who had taken refuge in the factory’s network of tunnels and bunkers began last weekend before being halted by new fights.
On Friday afternoon, 50 women, children and elderly people were evacuated from the factory, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, adding that the operation would continue on Saturday. The Russian side constantly violated a local ceasefire, she said, making the evacuation very slow.
Russia confirmed the number of people evacuated and plans to continue evacuations on Saturday, but did not comment on its accusation.
The town’s mayor estimated that 200 people remained stranded at the plant with little food or water.
In a video of the plant posted online Thursday evening, an Azov regimental doctor who went by the name Hasan described people dying of wounds and starvation.
Mariupol authorities on Friday accused Russian forces of violating the ceasefire at the steel plant by shooting at a car involved in evacuation efforts, killing one Ukrainian fighter and injuring six.
Russia did not immediately comment on the city council’s online statement. He had previously said that humanitarian corridors were in place.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to Russia’s most recent estimate, are also locked in a vast maze of tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks – and they have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Civilians travel for days to escape ‘hellscapes’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that the organization “must continue to do everything in its power to get people out of this hell.”
People fleeing Mariupol usually have to cross contested areas and numerous checkpoints – sometimes taking days to reach relative safety in the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers to the northwest.
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The fight in the last Ukrainian stronghold of a city reduced to rubble by the Russian onslaught has appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the Battle of Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for VE Day on Monday. , which marks the triumph of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany and is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.
Before VE Day, city workers and volunteers cleared what remains of Mariupol, a city that is now under Russian control apart from the steel mill.
Bulldozers picked up debris and people swept the streets against the backdrop of shell-gouged buildings. Workers repaired a model warship and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
Russia struggles to make gains in Donbass
The fall of Mariupol 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 in the world. the Donbass, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its main focus.
Its capture also has symbolic value since the city was the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces were continuing to try to take control of the rest of eastern Ukraine, where the Russian Defense Ministry said it destroyed an ammunition depot in Kramatorsk and shot down two Ukrainian fighter planes.
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video briefing that Ukrainian forces had made some advances near Kharkiv and Kherson and had inflicted “significant casualties” on the Russians while suffering their own casualties.
It was not possible to independently verify the statements of either side about the events on the battlefield.
WATCH | New operation underway to get civilians out of the Mariupol steelworks:
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces were only making “laborious” progress in Donbass.
In fact, the prolonged standoff at the Mariupol plant was helping to hamper Russia’s plans for Donbass, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an assessment on Friday.
The fighting at the factory “cost Russia personnel, equipment and ammunition”, he said. “While Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian casualties will continue to build and thwart their operational plans in southern Donbass.”
Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia has launched an unprovoked war. Over five million Ukrainians have fled abroad since the start of the invasion.
US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders plan to hold a video call with Zelensky on Sunday, the White House said, in a show of unity before Russia marks VE Day. Biden announced a security assistance package to Ukraine that will provide additional artillery munitions, radars and other equipment. A US official separately said he was worth US$150 million.
In another statement, the White House said Biden held a call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday in which they underscored their commitment to holding Russia accountable for its actions. They also discussed efforts to provide security assistance to Ukraine.
The Italian government, meanwhile, has ordered the seizure of a yacht worth around US$700 million that has been linked in the media to Putin.
The UN Security Council – which includes Russia – also expressed “deep concern” about the situation in Ukraine on Friday, its first statement since the February 24 invasion.
Ukraine says electrician helped Russians gain access to steel plant
The Russians pulverized much of Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000, and a two-month siege trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water , electricity or heating.
Civilians sheltering inside the factory may have suffered even more – hiding underground without seeing daylight for months.