Rescuers sought to evacuate more civilians from tunnels under a sprawling steelworks in Mariupol as Ukrainian fighters made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s full takeover of the strategically important port city.
Dozens of people were evacuated from the Azovstal plant on Friday and handed over to representatives of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russian and Ukrainian officials said. The Russian military said the group of 50 included 11 children.
Russian officials and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said evacuation efforts would continue over the weekend. The latest evacuees followed about 500 other civilians who have walked out of the factory and town in recent days.
The fight for the last Ukrainian bastion in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian assault appears increasingly desperate. And there was growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wanted to complete the Battle of Mariupol so he could present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day, the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar. .
As the holiday commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II approaches, cities across Ukraine have braced for an expected increase in Russian attacks and authorities have urged residents to heed air raid warnings.
“These symbolic dates are for the Russian aggressor like red for a bull,” Ukrainian First Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin said. “As the entire civilized world these days remembers the victims of terrible wars, the Russian Federation wants parades and prepares to dance on bones in Mariupol.”
The museum would have been destroyed
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also reminded people not to enter forests recently occupied by Russia due to the many remaining landmines and tripwires.
A Russian missile on Saturday destroyed a Ukrainian national museum dedicated to the life and work of an 18th-century philosopher, the local council said. He posted photographs on Facebook showing the Gregory Skovoroda Museum engulfed in flames.
As an indication of his importance to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, Skovoroda’s likeness adorns a Ukrainian banknote.
The Skovorodynivka Museum is near the Russian border in the Kharkiv region where the fighting was fierce.
Ongoing efforts to rescue soldiers: Zelensky
According to Russia’s most recent estimate, around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are holed up in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks. They repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukrainian officials said ahead of Friday’s evacuations that a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety have grown as the battle has intensified in recent days.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, commands the troops of the Azov regiment inside the factory, made a desperate appeal to spare the fighters as well. She said they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war, but would never go to Russia because it would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and dead”.
If nothing is done to save her husband and men, they “will hold out until the end without surrendering,” she told The Associated Press on Friday.
Zelensky said “influential states” are involved in the effort to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.
“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still in Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address.
Evacuees tell of the horrors
UN officials were tight-lipped about efforts to evacuate civilians, but it seemed likely that the last evacuees would be taken to Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian-held town about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, where more others who escaped the port city were brought.
Some of the factory’s former evacuees told the AP of the horrors of being surrounded by the dead in the moldy underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“They really need our help. We have to get them out,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, eight-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left for account.
Fighters defending the factory said on the Telegram messaging app on Friday that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the factory grounds, killing one soldier.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the resumption of fighting on Friday.
As they pounded the factory, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks into a devastating war that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and razed vast tracts of cities.
Odessa region will adopt curfew
Ukrainian officials said the risk of heavy shelling had increased ahead of VE Day. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital. The Odessa region in southern Ukraine, which was the target of two missile attacks on Friday, was due to adopt a curfew.
Ukraine’s army general staff said its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas region and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize kyiv. Russia made no acknowledgment of the losses.
The Ukrainian army also said it had advanced in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, retaking five villages and part of a sixth. Meanwhile, one person was reported dead and three others were injured following Russian shelling on Friday in Lyman, a town in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Russia took control of the rest of Mariupol after bombarding it for two months. Before VE Day, city workers and volunteers cleared what remains of the city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000. Some 100,000 civilians remain there despite severe shortages of food, water, electricity and heat. Bulldozers picked up debris and people swept the streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings. The Russian flags were hoisted.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port. It would also allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up some Russian troops to fight elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern industrial region which, according to the Kremlin, is now its main objective.
The capture of the city also has symbolic value as it was the site of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.