A long-awaited opertion to evacuate people trapped in a steelworks in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol was finally underway yesterday (Sunday), the United Nations said.
The Ukrainian president has said thatthe evacuation of civilians from Azovstal steel plan, the last part of the city controlled by Ukrainian forces had begun, with a group of about 100 people the first to leave.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said that the operation to bring people out of the sprawling plant was being done with the International Committee for the Red Cross and in co-ordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.
Mariupol’s council has told residents remaining in the city outside the steelworks to gather at a mall for a possible evacuation From the city’s pre-war population of 450,000 an estimated 100,000 people are believed to remain, including up to 1,000 civilians who were 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.
But most of the Mariupol now lies in ruins. Mariupol, have seen some of the fiercest fighting in this war. Thousands have died although exactly how many is still unclear. Bodies are said to remain in the streets. Others have been buried in mass graves, unceremoniously and unidentified.
The mayor, Vadym Boychenko, who is no longer in the city, has said the situation was “very difficult” and that there were almost no food and water supplies left.
He said some 20,000 people had been killed since the start of the invasion.
“The citizens who left the city say that hell exists and it’s in Mariupol,” the mayor said.
Mr Abreu called the situation “very complex” and would not give further details.
There were reports a group of about 40 people, who have come from the area near Azovstal, have arrived at a temporary accommodation centre in Bezimenne.
Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces in a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.
People who have fled Russian-occupied areas have at times described their vehicles being fired on. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
Earlier Russia said groups of 25 and 21 people had been evacuated from the area near the Azovstal steelworks, the last remaining part of the city under the control of Ukrainian troops.
Ukrainian officials earlier said there about 1,000 civilians and more than 500 wounded soldiers trapped at the industrial complex.
On Thursday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “intense discussions” were taking place to agree an evacuation operation, after meetings with President Zelensky in Kyiv and President Putin in Moscow.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling as war draws near their doorsteps.
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture Kyiv.
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.
“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
He warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that a process to evacuate civilians from Mariupol is under way.
“The ICRC confirms that a safe passage operation is ongoing, in coordination with the UN and the parties to the conflict,” a spokesman said.
“The convoy to evacuate civilians started on 29 April, travelled some 230 kilometres and reached the plant in Mariupol on Saturday morning, local time.
“The ICRC insists on the fact that no details can be shared until the situation allows, as it could seriously jeopardize the safety of the civilians and the convoy. Relevant local authorities are communicating with the civilians about practical details.”
Meanwhile, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has led a Congressional delegation to Kyiv to meet President Zelensky promising American support “until the fight is done” and says Congress will move quickly to approve $33bn in aid for Ukraine.
And Russian troops controlling the southern Ukranian city of Kherson say the rouble will be used there from Sunday.