More than 100 civilians from a besieged steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol were evacuated on Sunday and are expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” Zelenskyy said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging app channel.
Video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed a steep pile of debris from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant’s rubble, and then eventually boarded a bus.
The Mariupol City Council said on Telegram that the evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning.
People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
Later Sunday, one of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant as soon as the evacuation of a group of civilians was completed.
Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview Sunday night that several hundred civilians remain trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said. “We need one or two more rounds of evacuation.”
Sviastoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which is helping defend the steel plant, told The Associated Press in an interview from Mariupol on Sunday that it has been difficult even to reach some of the wounded inside the plant.
“There’s rubble. We have no special equipment. It`s hard for soldiers to pick up slabs weighing tons only with their arms,” he said. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside shattered buildings.
As many as 100,000 people may still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said civilians who have been stranded for nearly two months at the plant would receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services, once they arrive in Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol.
Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.
A Doctors Without Borders team was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, in preparation for the UN convoy’s arrival. Stress, exhaustion and low food supplies have likely weakened civilians trapped underground at the plant.
Meanwhile, UN House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed that she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russia’s invasion.
Pelosi and other US lawmakers visited Kyiv on Saturday. She is the most senior American lawmaker to travel to the country since Russia’s 24 Feb. invasion. Her visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Rep. Jason Crow, a US Army veteran and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of focus: “Weapons, weapons and weapons.” (Source: AP)