Ukraine said just 50 civilians were evacuated from a bombed-out steelworks in the city of Mariupol on Friday, accusing Russia of violating a truce intended to allow all those trapped beneath the plant to depart after weeks under siege.
Mariupol has endured the most destructive bombardment of the 10-week-old war, and the sprawling Soviet-era Azovstal plant is the last part of the city, a strategic southern port on the Azov Sea, still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late-night video address that Ukraine was working on a diplomatic effort to save defenders barricaded inside the steelworks. “Influential intermediaries are involved, influential states,” he said, but provided no further details.
Zelensky previously described Russia’s blockade of Mariupol as torture and said if Russia killed civilians or troops who could otherwise be released, his government could no longer hold peace talks with Moscow.
UN-brokered evacuation of some of the hundreds of civilians who had taken shelter in the plant’s network of tunnels and bunkers began last weekend before being halted by renewed fighting.
On Friday afternoon, 50 women, children and elderly people were evacuated from the plant, 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 evacuees and plan to continue evacuations on Saturday but did not comment on her accusation.
The city’s mayor has estimated 200 people remained trapped at the plant with little food or water.
In a video from the plant posted online late on Thursday, an Azov regiment medic who gave his name as Hasan described people dying from wounds and starvation.
Authorities in Mariupol earlier accused Russian forces on Friday of violating the ceasefire at the steelworks by firing at a car involved in evacuation efforts, killing one Ukrainian fighter and wounding six.
Russia did not immediately comment on the city council’s online statement. It had previously said humanitarian corridors were in place.
Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are also holed up in a vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks — and they have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Civilians travel for days to flee ‘hellscapes’
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Thursday that the organization “must continue to do all we can to get people out of these hellscapes.”
People escaping Mariupol typically have to pass through contested areas and many checkpoints — sometimes taking days to reach relative safety in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometres to the northwest.
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The fight in the last Ukrainian stronghold of a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Monday’s Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany and is the biggest patriotic holiday on the Russian calendar.
Ahead of Victory Day, municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what remains of Mariupol, a city that is now under Russia’s control apart from the steel plant.
Bulldozers scooped up debris and people swept streets against a backdrop of buildings hollowed out by shelling. Workers repaired a model of a warship, and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
Russia struggles to make gains in Donbas
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 Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective.
Its capture also holds symbolic value since the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were continuing to try to take over the rest of eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s defence ministry said it had destroyed an ammunition depot in Kramatorsk and shot down two Ukrainian warplanes.
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 losses” on the Russians while also suffering losses of their own.
It was not possible to independently verify either side’s statements about battlefield events.
WATCH | New operation underway to get civilians out of Mariupol steel plant:
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Russian forces are making only “plodding” progress in the Donbas.
In fact, the extended standoff at the plant in Mariupol was helping to hinder Russia’s plans for the Donbas, the British Defence Ministry said in an assessment on Friday.
The fighting at the plant “has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia,” it said. “Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas.”
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 launched an unprovoked war. More than five million Ukrainians have fled abroad since the start of the invasion.
U.S. 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 Victory Day. Biden announced a package of security assistance to Ukraine that will provide additional artillery munitions, radars and other equipment. A U.S. official separately said it was worth $150 million US.
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, ordered the seizure of a yacht worth some $700 million US that has been linked in the media to Putin.
The UN Security Council — which includes Russia — also expressed “deep concern” over the situation in Ukraine on Friday, its first statement since the Feb. 24 invasion.
Ukraine says electrician helped Russians access steel mill
The Russians have pulverized much of Mariupol, which had a prewar population of over 400,000, and a two-month siege has trapped perhaps 100,000 civilians with little food, water, electricity or heat.
Civilians sheltering inside the plant have perhaps suffered even more — hunkering underground without seeing daylight in months.